Distance Learning through Play in Primary School

written by: Dr. Bo Stjerne Thomsen, Chair of Learning through Play

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Right from the earliest moments of infancy, children have an amazing natural potential to learn through play, why the International School of Billund in Denmark has placed play at the heart of education. Over the past years, the school has worked with researchers from Harvard University, Project Zero, to develop a Pedagogy of Play to cultivate a school culture that value and support learning through play, which now seemed to really show its strengths during these times of change.

As part of distance learning, the school and teachers engages each child at their level, while still maintaining a collective understanding of learning goals and engagement with friends. The classroom activities are all managed and collected through an online platform and portfolio using SeeSaw. In some instances, an additional platform like Google Meet is used for group chat or a few other plugins to enable uploads and sharing.

Below are some of my favourite examples of the activities happening in the Primary Years classroom:

  • Create a ’name book', as a 2-page illustration with a short text and icons to describe the origin and history of your name. Children are invited to research the origin of their names and reflect on icons to describe it. The class ended up having an online book with all the names in it, which the children enjoyed browsing through.

  • Select a book and one of their favourite stories at home. The children record themselves while describing a few pages from the book, draw an illustration from the book or build a physical model to explain one aspect of the story or an alternative ending to it.

  • In mathematics, the children are encouraged to look for objects in their homes that can describe fractions, take a picture and upload it to SeeSaw. Some choose LEGO® bricks in different sizes, others choose paper while others select different sizes of household objects.

  • Children are encouraged to invent and film their own mathematics games to practice math operations. For instance, they can layout papers with the numbers from 1 to 9 on the floor long with multiplication, additions, and subtractions, and try different ways of counting by physically moving around on the papers.

  • The teachers encourage the children to develop their own instructional video of an activity they like to do; the example here is a hilarious video of the teacher trying to put on a face-mask (which on purpose goes terribly wrong). This creates confidence in the children that mistakes are okay, and the children film small games, bake cakes or use other ways of displaying their skills to others.

  • The children are asked to identify surfaces and shapes of different kinds of objects in the house based on an open list from the teacher; something shiny, something rough, round, long, sticky, etc. Videos or pictures are uploaded and reflections made on the differences between the objects.

  • One of the favourite activities is to test out how many times one can do bottle flips. Again, the teachers on purpose fail enormously in the activity while demonstrating the activity, and then encourage the children to improve. My daughter spend almost an hour testing, trying, improving and filming her explorations.

  • In the lead up to the Easter break, the children were designing and writing Easter letters. A tradition in Denmark, where the children are doing beautiful paper cuttings and then writing poems on them and finding creative ways to hide their names. The result was uploaded to SeeSaw, but also led to some children sending real letters to their friends and family.

Very often the entry point is a hands-on activity, for instance, building a small physical model of yourself or making an interview about how you do mathematics or reading right now, - what works and what is difficult. A great reflective exercise, which also led to some children making creative models of microphones in order to interview themselves.

Obviously, all of this requires access to a computer (of some kind), and activities can also include screen-based word games, using pictures, icons, and presentation, doing an online book reading, etc.; however, there is always a combination of online work and physical activities balanced throughout the day.

What seems to be uniquely interesting here is that the activities are inherently playful. They are highly engaging, meaningful and enjoyable for both children and teachers, but also the teachers have been particularly effective in testing and trying out things that make use of the resources in the home environment.

 Here is what I observed that seemed to work:

  • The majority of the activities are open-ended and inherently enjoyable to get started with, and making use of every day meaningful objects that everyone could find around them.

  • Throughout the week, the teachers facilitate a series of short 20-30 minutes live conversations in groups of 3-4 children (larger groups do not work well), where the children talked about how they feel, and what they were doing, and in that way bridging the informal friends seeking and collaboration.

  • Every morning the teacher starts with a short humorous video of something surprising and imaginative to get everyone started; whether a short video about a puppy that got lost, or enabling everyone to find their favourite pyjamas to share, do a small creative activity, etc.

  • The teachers give almost instantaneous feedback through comments online (all comments were curated by the teachers), and always encourage these contributions with positive notes and constructive ideas.

  • The schedule throughout the day is very flexible; each morning a new set of activities are available based on the different curricula topics, and children can select the order and pace and are eager to not only try it but do their best. Sometimes the ‘day’ ends at 1 or 2 pm. On other days the children are sending a final note just before bedtime.

I truly believe that such approaches rely on teachers being playful and creative about their own work, in order to help them navigate and adapt to new ways of teaching during this uncertainty. The collaboration with the researchers to explore pedagogies that support learning through play has primed a culture, where it’s okay to try out and share new ideas; nothing needs to be perfect, as long as it’s a process of learning that sparks joy, engagement, and curiosity.

I asked the Head of School, Camilla Uhre Fog, what she believed has made the transition to distance learning successful, and she mentioned three things:

  • First and foremost they have benefitted from the fact that, as a school community, they have been using, testing out and reflecting on the concept of playful learning for years now. Many of the pedagogical practices that have become second nature to the teachers and students are relevant for exactly this situation: enabling experimentation and risk-taking, engaging the imagination to explore ideas, and - the big one - encouraging learners to lead their own learning. What is important to highlight is the fact that the teachers are working hard to remain flexible in their strategies, because what is playful for one learner may not be playful for all. That nimble mindset is certainly helping to keep things fresh and fun for the students in this situation.

  • Having a well-functioning digital platform to facilitate open-ended learning has also been a major plus. They were fortunate to begin using SeeSaw already last year, and the Primary Years Program teachers made sure that both students and parents were familiar with how to use it. However, it's important to note that this is also possible because the school does not rely on testing to measure student progress. Instead, the school is constantly looking for different ways to share student learnings with parents, which led to the idea of an online portfolio system in the first place.

  • While assigning a weeks-worth of work for students to return at the end may have the benefit of longer-term flexibility, the school found that keeping a schedule that is at least loosely tied to a normal school day and having teachers provide feedback in (almost) real-time is enormously helpful. This can be challenging for both teachers and parents in terms of timing (hence the “loosely”). However, having the awareness from the children that their teachers are “live” and available, provides students not only with a sense of normalcy but also with the motivation to stay connected and try hard.

As a parent to one of the children in this Primary School, and with these kinds of examples, I am confident that distance learning is not only something that can work through these difficult times but also highly self-driven and enjoyable, and with fewer requirements from parents. It would be interesting to know other experiences with distance learning and play.

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Dr. Bo Stjerne Thomsen is the Vice-President and Chair of Learning through Play in the LEGO Foundation. The function of the Chair is to be the expert at the highest level to the executive leadership on how children and adults learn through play.