The Power of Play

How Educational Games Accelerate Learning and Bring About Enduring Change

Let the Fun Begin!

As children, we learn through play. Because play is so much fun, it creates a virtuous circle where we play and learn. As adults, with the help of educational or “learning” games, the lucky ones among us find ourselves playing to learn once again. Judging by the popularity of learning games, we can still learn a lot through play. For some, it may even be the best way to learn.

Just as children do, when we learn through play as adults we pack in the practice of doing the things we enjoy and so we begin to achieve. Eventually we get a little (or, in some cases, a lot) better at what we do every day. Think “baby steps.” Little and often.

With practice come results. Results give us a sense of achievement. We then practice more until doing what we do becomes a habit, and that behavior becomes part of who we are.

With practice, we’re able to discover what we’re really good at. Eventually, all those hours of practice add up to make us proficient at doing the thing that we enjoy doing most.

Add in the necessary ingredients of support, guidance and courage, and the moment you attain proficiency should collide just-in-time with opportunity. That’s when you suddenly realize that you’re doing what you love or at least loving what you do. Best of all, you are getting paid for it. There’s your “TADA! moment.” It feels like magic.

Because your Fun Flywheel is already spinning, that breakthrough will fuel your courage and desire to achieve even more. You’ll continue to practice and, because you know the secret to practice is through play, you’ll never tire of striving to become better every day.

The Enduring Memory of Play

Why turn work into play?

Play breaks down organizational boundaries – such as when senior managers find themselves negotiating with developers, as a team, over whether building a Mars station will bring in more business value than a Castle.

Play connects people. It creates a shared experience that lasts way beyond a 90-minute gaming session, and continues through into daily work.

Play creates a sense of common purpose. It unites people from different teams and departments, sometimes for the first time, towards a common tangible goal.

Play increases understanding between people. It clearly demonstrates everyone‘s unique strengths and how you can leverage the strengths of others to overcome your own weaknesses by working as a team.

We can’t resist having fun. Fun lowers resistance. Lower resistance means more open minds. Open minds make learning possible as we begin to challenge our own assumptions and biases, the first step towards a mindset shift.

The Games We Play

Learning games are games used to teach a skill or concept. Their primary purpose is education through fun and play. The learning cycle of the games I use are best described by what Anthony W. Lorsbach identifies as the learning cycle in teaching science.

Engage and Explore - Learning games catch the audience's attention and ignite their imagination, transforming them from passive bystanders into active learners.

Explain and Extend - Learning games present theory with concrete examples to help participants expand their knowledge through association, and by building on what they already know.

Evaluation - Opportunities for playback and reflection are built-in to reinforce learning as well as create more opportunities to refine and improve understanding.

Value-Driven Learning Leads to Meaningful Play

By applying the five Agile Values to the games we play (also known as the XP Values from Kent Beck and Cynthia Andres) we can add an extra dimension to our learning. The five values are Communication, Simplicity, Feedback, Courage and Respect. Applying values in the context of learning inspires us to think more deeply about our experiences in terms of ourselves and others and the way we perceive the world around us.

Learning with an Open Mind Requires Teaching with an Open Mind

To maximize the opportunities for learning through games, I apply the Agile Values in conjunction with three key teaching principles that I’ve learned through my experience as a student, teacher, coach, consultant and manager.

Everyone adds value. This is a strong starting point for people that are serious about learning. For games facilitators, this requires creating an environment where everyone can contribute in a way that helps them grow.

You can only change yourself. Instead of telling people what to do or how to think, always strive to offer options. Empowering people with the chance to choose and participate on their own terms transforms learning into a personal responsibility.

Be better (than you were yesterday, every day). Making mistakes is essential to learning. View mistakes as a gift, a learning opportunity. By doing so, we can address our mistakes and take improvement actions now for a more successful future.

The Science of Learning

If we apply the principle of ‘Everyone adds value’ to learning, it follows that we would embrace diversity. What does diversity in people mean in the context of learning? It means different people with preferences for different learning styles.

One idea that acknowledges and accommodates such a need is that of Multiple Intelligences from Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist. According to Gardner, our abilities can be categorized into eight different “intelligences:” linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, kinaesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalist.

Linguistic – An ability with words, spoken or written. Aptitude in reading, writing, telling stories. Usually described as “good with words.”

Kinaesthetic – Good hand-eye coordination, good motor functions. Aptitude for training responses into reflexes.

Logical-mathematical – Good with logic, abstractions, reasoning and numbers. Sometimes referred to as “scientific thinking.”

Spatial – Good spatial judgment. Ability to visualize things.

Musical – An acute awareness to sounds, rhythms, tones and music. Ability to see and translate sounds into music.

Interpersonal – Empathic, good at social interaction. Works best with others.

Intrapersonal – An ability to introspect. An acute awareness of self and others in terms of feelings and motivations.

Naturalistic – A love for nature and natural surroundings. An ability to nurture.

Whereas classic schooling focuses and rewards predominantly those with skills such as reading, writing and mathematics, Gardner’s model provides a much broader vision of education. In my opinion, the model is a celebration of diversity. Here are some ways to recognize each of the eight different “intelligences” in learning games.

Criteria for Experiential Learning

Learning games are a good example of experiential learning. In addition to applying the five Agile Values, and my three key teaching principles, I apply Gardner’s idea of Multiple Intelligences by weaving multi-sensory elements into the games I design and play. The result: learning through experience that reaches a broader audience than just chalk and talk.

In my experience, a truly experiential session has the following characteristics:

  • Appeals to three or more senses at any one time – such as seeing, hearing, and feeling
  • Engages the mind, body and spirit – engages the cognitive, the physical and feelings
  • Focuses on inclusion instead of exclusion, inclusivity instead of exclusivity
  • Measured by large amounts of laughter
  • Negative behavior is addressed through self-correction
  • Learning happens among fellow participants, not just participants learning from the trainer
  • Trainer learns at least as much as the participants

Learning that Makes You Think

Based on the results from the learning games I play with groups, retention of information is at least three times more than passive learning. The stickiness of the learning through games lasts for days, if not weeks and months long after our session together.

Imagine: It’s the end of a 2-day course during which we’ve played games, eaten candy, laughed together, reflected together and learned together. What’s the greatest testimonial to the effectiveness of learning games? ”Thank you for the course,” Uma said. “I didn’t fall asleep once. In fact, I stayed awake because I didn’t want to miss one bit of it.” If that’s how Uma defines successful learning then that makes us all winners.

Recommended Learning Game Resources

Collection of games on Lean, Agile, Process Improvement and Personal Development to help individuals and organizations deliver more value

Rediscovering the lessons we learned as children but have since forgotten for personal development through storytelling, role-play and interactive games

Games for software professionals involved in project management, process management and much more

Games to help companies improve business performance through collaborative and cooperative play

About the Author
Portia Tung specializes in Agile Enablementand organizational change as a Consultant-Coach and Chief Strategy Officer of emergn. She builds effective and meaningful teams by pragmatically applyingLean and Agile Values, Principles and Practices.

She has had a number of roles over the years, ranging from Java developer to technical team lead. She works in a multi-disciplined capacity to enable organizations to deliver higher business value faster by tapping into the power of teams.

Portia is also the creator of Agile Fairytales, a series of learning games that help adults rediscover the lessons we learned as children but have since forgotten. Portia loves inventing and playing games because she believes we can all improve continuously through play to achieve our goals.

twitter: portiatung


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