Shut Up and Play: The Case for Play in Adult Learning

By Lori Cohen, a Bright Morning Associate and contributing blogger 

Haters May Hate, But Players Will Play

I admit it: I hate playing games. I hate board games, games of cards, games that invite us to sing and be silly and vulnerable and win and lose or just have plain, nonsensical fun. In fact, I don’t know if I ever loved playing games growing up. Whenever Monopoly or Sardines or Light as a Feather emerged as one of the slumber-party options, I wanted to duck out, like the stakes of winning and losing were too high, like the embarrassment quotient was too great a risk. Even as an adult, playing games among dear friends and close family is like my own personal hell. 

And yet, I play anyway.

Why Play Matters

As an educator, I’ve learned to give myself over entirely to the world of play. I’ve seen the impact play can have on students from a range of backgrounds and experiences. I integrate play because in communities where I’m responsible for raising young people, I’m called to a bigger charge, to let go of my ego, to recognize neurological, social-emotional, and academic benefits of play: of laughing for laughter’s sake, of silliness as a way to foster social skills, of “gamifying” the classroom experience as a way to be more culturally responsive and to cement learning. 

Just as our students need play, we adults do, too. We need play because the world is a heavy and difficult place where injustice rules the roost these days; under the burdens of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and all other forms of oppression, we need to counterbalance the hard work of resistance with opportunities to recharge. We need play because it fosters our resilience in times of great stress—and education is a stressful profession. We need play because it’s good for our health and well-being, and our students are looking to us as models for how to be in the world.  

Playing With the Edges of Discomfort—and Liking It 

Last fall at an “Evening with Elena” event, Elena brought out canisters of tennis balls, placed a couple balls at each table and asked us to throw them around as a way to engage and get to know one another. My blood pressure skyrocketed. I thought this was supposed to be an evening talking about resilience, hearing wisdom from Elena, and participating in some meaningful table talk. So when we were asked to stand up and play with tennis balls and throw them around, all my internal voices kicked in: People will think I look silly. There goes my credibility. What if I’m terrible at this? What if I do something embarrassing, like snort when I laugh or fall over, or who knows what else? And yet, I played anyway. I laughed, felt awkward, realized my hand-eye coordination could use some work, and ultimately, made new connections and felt energized by the experience. 

Playing by Example

Summer after summer I lead adult learning experiences where newer teachers learn some fundamentals for working in independent schools. I team with facilitators from elementary, middle, and high school, and together we design a four-day experience that invites participants to learn by doing, reflecting, and—dare I say—playing. While we dig deeply into identity, equity, culture, and pedagogy, every day we also play games to process our learning. 

In this program, when leading my session on lesson design, participants are students in my mock high school class. While the content of the lesson is about the semi-colon and the culture of power, participants are asked to play in a range of ways: use “thumbometers” to gauge energy and understanding, draw emojis to express emotion, and mingle through movement. 

As a school leader, whenever I designed professional development for any staff gathering, I always invited a level of play: from light-hearted check-in questions to ways to introduce new colleagues to making up dance moves to represent concepts. The more playful the activity, the more I got into it. And to the surprise of the adults in these sessions, they got into it, too.

A Plea to Play

You may be as averse to play as I am; you may be introverted and can imagine nothing worse than being asked to have dance parties or rekindle experiences of childhood through games. And I urge you to play anyway. The world needs more lightheartedness and laughter. Our brains need the opportunities for bonding, for energizing, and for learning to take hold. And our students need more open-minded, open-hearted, playful adults in their lives.

Whether you’re a play-averse or play-loving educator who designs professional development, consider these resources as a starter kit (or refresher) for bringing more play into your adult  learning experiences:


For Further Reading:

  • Check out this piece about how play helps build a better brain, and follow up with this one to bring a little more play into your classroom—while being culturally responsive.
  • This piece offers 12 ways to “gamify” your classroom


The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion or position of Bright Morning.