Search form

Is Playing Still an Important Part of Learning in Older Kids?

Most middle school students take pride in their transition from young, rowdy, and reckless elementary students to older, more mature, and self-conscious middle schoolers. Regardless of how they feel about themselves or come across to others, we know that middle schoolers are still essentially children who crave every opportunity for play. 

With almost two decades of research proving the vital role of play in learning, we have every reason to encourage it. Science has shown us that the activity fortifies neural pathways and promotes spontaneous thinking, creativity, thirst for knowledge, and a positive sense of self and others. 

Sadly, with the rising cases of mental health challenges affecting our youth, we have forgotten that play is fundamental to their continued learning and growth. It is incumbent upon educators to ensure that this requirement is met through age-appropriate opportunities for engagement. 

Word Games

Students will have usually overcome their desire for rough-and-tumble play by middle school, but language calisthenics, or wordplay, can be a timeless substitute. For example, a teacher may ask a student to pick a difficult word, fetch its meaning, and use it in a complex sentence. 

You will then discuss the answer in class, where a maximum of two points can be gained by each student: one for appropriate usage of the difficult word and another for correct grammatical construction. Only those who get both points will receive a reward. 

A caption contest can also be a great way to practice students’ symbolic or figurative expression skills through allusions, tropes, puns, and the like. Even the silliest “what do you call” jokes can help expand their vocabulary and capacity for complex sentences. Most of all, it will be fun. 

Imagination Through Reading

While middle school students no longer take to preschool fantasies of princesses or dressing up as a policeman, their hunger for imagination is no less as powerful. Stories of the Boy Who Lived battling He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named grab the minds of our students as young Harry matures. 

By encouraging independent reading, educators allow students to run free with their imagination, where they can connect with different characters, language, and imagery to which they are naturally drawn. Even better, the students can act out roles in class and become those characters themselves, looking at the world from brand new eyes. 

Alternatively, they can play the part of a prominent public figure amid an important current event. This stirs the students’ imagination, but it also lets them see the world from the vantage point of a major player in society - for example, a president during an impending war - instead of being the usual, passive citizen looking from the outside in. 

Theoretical Exercise 

Another type of play drives middle schoolers to spread their mental wings while exploring concepts and ideas that have no concrete or tangible form. For example, a class discussion can center on mind-drilling philosophies such as solipsism, which argues that nothing outside of man’s internal world truly exists, or relativism, which says truth is never absolute and will always depend on the given context. 

Teachers can ask open-ended questions regarding those philosophies, and students can play with concepts in their heads while trying to come up with answers. This way, the students can practice how to think broader and deeper and how to form opinions about things and life around them. 

Class Debates

Middle school is the perfect time to introduce students to debates and their benefits to learning. The class can learn about real-world ideas, form opinions about them, and fight for their beliefs in a rational and structured manner. Class debates promote self-reflection and help strengthen the bond among students as they learn from one another during the activity. 

Topics for middle school class debates need not be complicated and may be as basic as whether or not students should be punished for tardiness. As students campaign for their respective positions, debaters will be playing with ideas in their heads, gaining a broader perspective about the issue in the process. At the same time, they can stretch their cognitive muscles even further and develop empathy for the views of others, especially from the opposite camp. 

Final Thoughts

Beyond fun, play-oriented teaching can help capture the attention of middle school students in ways that increase their learning and stimulate their appetite for more. When methods are interesting, it will be easier to bring them on board until they reach mastery that builds on their self-confidence and cultivates a culture of academic integrity in the classroom.

Written by Cheryl Ramos
Education World Contributor
Copyright© 2022 Education World