Using Play to Teach Writing

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Tanya RodrigueToday’s guest blogger is Tanya Rodrigue, an assistant professor in English and coordinator of the Writing Intensive Curriculum Program at Salem State University in Massachusetts.

I often take my three-year old son to a maker’s lounge at a nearby museum. He transforms popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, legos, paper cups, scraps of paper and whatever other materials available that day into his own creations. In his play, he makes things like spaceships and communication contraptions, which may or may not resemble a material object in the world.  My son learns through play: play in public places like the museum; play at his school, which operates from a play-based curriculum; and play at home with toys, cardboard boxes, costumes, and even flashlights.


Scholars have positioned play as optimal for learning: play fosters and invites problem-solving abilities, curiosity, exploration, discovery, inquiry, creativity, persistence, oral language, collaboration, intrinsic motivation, and strong engagement. While we know that play is a highly effective learning tool, it is often relegated to spaces where children learn. Positioned at the opposite end of the spectrum from “academic,” play is not often encouraged or integrated into classrooms in higher education. Yet, according to scholar Henry Jenkins, play—“the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving”—is one of the skills needed to be literate in the 21st century (Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture). Thus, as college instructors, teaching students how to “play” is now arguably part of our jobs.


In my pedagogy, I have recognized the value of play—both structured and unstructured, and material and intellectual play —as a means to learn about writing, rhetoric, and genre. One semi-structured material play activity I facilitate in my digital writing courses is the transformation of my class into a maker’s lounge. The purpose is four-fold: to motivate and nurture the 3-year old inside of my college students, evoking an excitement for learning and doing; to encourage creativity and innovation; and to position the writing process as a process of play, and writing itself as a play-based activity. I ultimately want my students to adopt the same mindset and approach they have and use in making something during this activity as they will when they compose a digital project.



Step #1: Bring in a plethora of materials students can use to build something such as legos, play-doh, string, tape, pens, paper.  Below is a picture of material I use. Spread the material out on a table.



Step #2: Tell students that they’ll be working with the material in three different ways. Then, one at a time, explain the steps. Set a five-minute timer for each step.

  1. Take some materials from the table and create something.
  2. Take two more pieces of material from the table and add it to your creation.
  3. Now, take the material you have and create something completely different.


Step #3: After students finish their creations, give them 10 minutes to respond to the following questions:

  1. How would you describe this experience?
  2. What did you create in each iteration of the activity, and in what ways did you work with the material to make these creations?
  3. How did it feel, both intellectually and emotionally, to add material to the creation in step 2 or to transform the material into something completely different in step 3?
  4. Why would I ask you to do this in a writing class?


Step #4: Ask students to share their responses with the class, and facilitate a large class discussion about the relationship between play and writing.



This activity yields a fun time, imaginative creations, and thoughtful reflections and realizations about writing and the writing process. Students’ creations have ranged from the simple—a bunny rabbit made with two pens and a paper plate later turned into a cat face—to the complex—a carousel with toy soldiers transformed into an elaborate military scene with a detailed storyline, complete with roles for each soldier. Students described the experience as “fun,” “creative,” “relaxing,” “engaging,” “silly,” “no-pressure,” and “simple.” Some students surprised themselves with what they made, either because they didn’t think they were creative and then recognized they were, or because an idea suddenly emerged, they claimed, out of “nowhere.” Other students talked about feeling uneasy about creating something or not knowing what they were doing while they were doing it, but eventually feeling excited about the finished product.


From this activity, my students exceeded my expectations, learning much about writing and the writing process. Some lessons they took away from the activity are:

  • the value of experimentation, play, revision, editing, and thinking “outside the box”
  • the realization that there are different ways to approach writing, and that constraints can yield creativity
  • the possibilities inherent in adding and transforming material, combining material (which some likened to modalities), and working within and against genre conventions and constraints
  • the recognition that there is no one “right way” to work with material when writing, and that it is possible to make “something” out of “nothing”

This activity can prepare students for a more structured activity in play with alphabetic or digital writing, and/or provide them with a frame of mind for approaching a composing task.

Photo by the author.