Playing with a Practical Purpose

4 Min Read  •  Project-Based Learning

“Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.”

– Mr. Rogers

When we hear the phrase “learning through play”, my mind goes immediately to the preschool/early elementary classroom where children are in centers (the block center, the home living center, etc.) vividly using their imaginations to create their own worlds. Looking at my upper elementary classroom, I realized that this type of play-based learning would not be realistic. However, my gut tells me that even the older kids need this creative outlet of play to “practice what they are learning” as Mr. Rogers said.

Learning through Play

Researching this topic left me startled. There is an abundance of information of the importance of play in the primary grades but very little information out there on the importance of “play” in the upper elementary/middle school classroom. So, I had to step back, and think about what play really is.

The official definition for play is: “to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.”

I struggled with this definition, because in a classroom, we have to have a “practical purpose” to make sure that our standards are being addressed. But this left me to wonder: Does the purpose have to be obvious to our students? The basic aspects of “play” are creativity, imagination, and problem solving. This is the backbone of play-based learning in our upper elementary classrooms.

3 Ways to Incorporate Play-Based Learning in an Upper Elementary Classroom:

Play with Plays!

Drama is an excellent way to incorporate “playing” in the upper elementary classroom. This allows students to creatively express what they are learning in class. Having said that, it does not have to be a full length production. It can be simple.

Recently, I was in a training and the presenter had us stand up and act out shaking hands. Why something as basic as that? Well, in the story, we were exploring a handshake was a significant turning point for the main character. This was very easy and relevant to our lesson. The act of turning to a partner and shaking hands allowed us to experience what the main character was experiencing.

Tableaus are another feature of drama that I absolutely love to use. A tableau is a “still life” meaning there is no acting or talking involved. It is especially beneficial to use with a group who is a bit more shy. Tableaus can be done individually or in groups of students. The students get to represent a “picture” of what is happening. This requires a great deal of creative thinking because there is no movement or talking involved. But, the comprehension of the topic is still there. I’ve used tableaus not only in reading but also science and social studies!


I challenge you to find anyone of any age who doesn’t like to play with play dough. My bet is: you can’t do it. People of all ages enjoy the squishy-goodness that is play dough! Not only is play dough an effective calming strategy to use in the classroom, but it can also double as a learning tool. Below are just a few ways to use play dough in the upper elementary classroom.

  • Scenes and models to show important parts of a text or summarize
  • Sculptures to show characters (could use color to differentiate between mood)
  • 3D models of shapes, cells and other scientific concepts (types of clouds, body systems, etc)
  • Physical representations of landforms and geographical maps


This may be a strategy you are already using in your class but have never seen it explained as a play-based strategy. Simulations explained by Max Fischer are “a staged replication of an event or concept through the teacher’s manipulation of the classroom setting in order to enhance students’ understanding of the nature of the concept or event. (Education World)”

Simulations can be used with all subject areas and actually many subjects can be blended into a single simulation.

For example, in your class you are reading Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis. This is a remarkable story which follows a young African American orphan during The Great Depression. Through his journey, he finds himself in a “Hooverville”, which were cardboard villages people resorted to staying in during this era. You could set your classroom up as a Hooverville and present groups of students problems that people during this era faced.

The opportunities are limitless with simulations. Simulations will bring out creativity and problem solving with students who are put into situations they may not would otherwise be faced with.

When we look at our upper elementary classrooms, my hope is that creativity, imagination, and problem solving are evident. From the outside, we may not see the obvious signs of play as we do in the younger grades, but it is there – masked with practical purpose.


Simulations Engage Students In Active Learning. (n.d.).