Play, passion, purpose

Two weeks ago I was fortunate to have the opportunity to share two days leading the staff of Our Lady of the Way, Petrie, through a hands on, play focused workshop. Drawing upon a number of different sources, I designed and developed a series of discovery stations, and the teaching staff had almost two whole days to play, experiment, collaborate and investigate with as many stations as they wished. It was so much fun!

In this post, I’d like to share the inspiration for these two days, a little about how the two days ran and what I learnt from the teachers and from running the two day experience.


Over the last few years, I’ve had more than a passing interest in Makerspaces. As a teacher and a librarian, I believe that makerspaces are far more than a fad, and that there is a great value in collaborative, hands on learning, creating something that meets a need or provokes intense interest. I’ve written about my exploits into making several times on my previous blogs – sharing my first experience of running a MakerFaire and exploring why I believe schools and libraries should consider investigating maker activities.  I have presented to various groups, sharing how to begin advocating for a makerspace in a library or school setting.

Many schools are also considering makerspaces as a way to introduce and provide context for different aspects of STE(A)M (science, technology, engineering, (arts) and mathematics). This is particularly so in Australia with the recent release of the Digital Technologies curriculum. For the first time, teachers in primary schools are being asked to formally teach  computational thinking, programming and the development of digital technology solutions to authentic problems. Many of the activities commonly included in makerspaces, including coding, robotics and computing using tools such as the Arduino, help develop skills in these areas.

Our Lady of the Way is no different in that the staff are always keen to learn new and different ways to teach with the Australian Curriculum. However, there is a strong undercurrent in the ethos of the school, and that is the value of play. Driven by their school principal, Mr John Parkinson, engaging students by incorporating creative play into all aspects of the curriculum is a key priority. Inspired by Tony Wagner‘s Tedx Talk on Play, Passion and Purpose, which you can view below, John and his Assistant Principal, Shelley Isbester, invited me to work with the teachers in developing new ways to see how playful learning might be creatively integrated into the classroom. And so that is what I set out to do.

Incidently, if you enjoyed this presentation, check out the rest of Tony Wagner’s work – he has amazing ideas about how we might re-imagine education.

What we did

The aim of the two days was to maximise the time spent playing, however without a context, the value of this play may have been limited. So for the first session of day one, I presented to the staff some background information about why hands on, collaborative and investigative play continues to be an extremely important aspect of learning. You might enjoy viewing some of these Ted Talks, where this idea is presented persuasively by a range of different speakers.

Everywhere we turn, technology is redefining our lives, and whereas schools may have once prepared students for a lifetime of work in one field, now innovative and flexible thinking,  openness to change, and enterprise skills including global citizenship, digital literacy and problem solving  are what students need as they embrace a rapidly changing society. Inquiry and problem based learning, models such as the genius hour or 20% time as well as the development of a growth mindset are all ways that enable students to become independent, resilient and life-long learners – as does encouraging students to ‘play’ : with ideas, concepts and resources. In the slides below, I shared information about pedagogy, preparing students for a changing future and resources for how to create activities similar to the ones the teachers were going to play with.

The Activity Stations

There were seven activity stations. Teachers could spend as little or as long a time as they chose at the stations, but they were encouraged to move around during the two days to get a taste of most of them.

Robots R Us:

This station featured fairly high tech robots (Spheros and Ollies) as well as very simple, low tech robots including brushbots and drawbots.

The Spheros and Ollies are purchased ready to go. They are controlled by a mobile device (iPad or Android tablet) which has the appropriate app installed, and at their most basic level function as fun, high tech robotic, remote controlled vehicles. Once the basic functions have been learnt, however, there are many different challenges to explore, as different apps allow users to construct code which controls the robots, encouraging computational thinking, problem solving and simple coding.

The brushbots and drawbots are very simple, independently moving creations, that the teachers had fun constructing. You can see the drawbots and a brushbot in the photo to the left. Using a toothbrush head, a small battery and a mobile phone vibrating motor, the brushbots can be put together in a matter of minutes. The drawbots take just a few minutes more, being plastic cups with felt pens attached, which leave marks on paper when the vibrating buzzer causes them to jump around. Both of these simple machines can form the basis for countless artistic and engineering explorations.

Squishy Circuits

Using conductive and non-conductive playdough, the teachers had fun making simple models which housed basic circuits, running LED lights and small motors and buzzers charged by coin batteries. We had trouble with the conductive dough not carrying the charge, but sprinkling extra salt through the dough and kneading it through helped solve this problem. The non-conductive dough is made with sugar and demineralised water, which makes the dough an insulator. Testing the different sized batteries, lights and motors, as well as watching how the different levels of salt affected the conductivity of the dough were just some of the investigations the teachers ‘played’ with. In the photo to the left, you can see a squishy light up ‘beetle’, next to a brushbot ladybeetle.

Sewing Circle

Lots of the teachers were avid sewers, and the ability to create a textile piece that incorporated circuits with leds and buzzers got them very excited. Using conductive thread, the teachers’ knowledge of circuitry was tested, and many of them naturally fell into the design thinking model where prototypes were created, tested and iterated upon. Many of the teachers commented that it was refreshing to see how circuitry and other science concepts could easily be incorporated into a creative, artistic project, and the way they worked together to solve problems was inspiring.

Interactive Papercraft

Similar to the sewing circle, teachers had the choice of using copper tape or Bare Conductive paint to integrate papercrafts with simple circuitry. As a way of providing some low-tech options, I also included some simple origami books and origami paper, as another way of introducing play and interactivity into paper craft. Simple buzzers and led lights could easily be attached to a battery using copper tape to make an origami frog that lights up and ‘croaks’ – the options with very inexpensive materials are endless!

Squishy, Slimey, Sparkly

This table surprised me the most. As a complete contrast to robotics and technology, I also included a table with access to cornflour, water, glitter, mica, paint, cotton wool, food colouring and more glitter! I brought along a box of empty glass jars, as well as some tiny craft bottles, and let the teachers make a mess creating rheoscopic fluid bottles and ‘galaxies in a jar‘, as well as cornflour slime. I thought that only the early years teachers would spend any time at this table, as the activities were simple and quick to do, however, the chance to play with different materials, make a mess while making something ultimately quite beautiful and to chat while doing so proved a big draw card! Teachers of older students commented on the calming effect of the rheoscopic fluid bottles, and wanted to make them as a ‘chill out’ activity, and discussion about adapting the activities by combining oil and water coloured differently and including items of different densities demonstrated that once you start playing, the ideas often begin to bubble to the surface!

Arduino and Makey Makey

I included tables with Arduinos and Makey Makeys to provide the teachers with an opportunity to explore these common ‘makerspace’ inclusions. I also spent some time on the second day discussing creative used of the Makey Makey, sharing how I created the ‘talking infographic’ poster and challenging the teachers to think beyond the ‘banana piano’. You can read about how I created the talking infographic poster here. Sometimes the initial thrill at something completely different, like the ability to control a computer with a banana, overwhelms everything else. It is important that enough time is given for real play, that moves beyond basic implementation, and challenges the learner to think about creative, authentic ways the technology may be used to solve real problems.

Read all about it

One thing teachers rarely get to do is sit down and do some quiet professional reading. Thus the inclusion of the ‘read all about it’ table, or chill out zone. I provided not only books on making, inventing and hands on learning but also a range of picture books that encourage readers to be resilient and true to themselves. I think the teachers really liked having the chance to browse through the titles at their own pace, and many spent a good half hour quietly reading at some stage or other during the two days.

On the second day, we began with a marshmallow challenge.

In small groups, I asked the teachers to work together to build the tallest structure they could using just marshmallows and toothpicks. It was fascinating to watch how every group came up with a different idea, and although there were discussions at first about just eating them all up, after the initial giggles, they began serious discussions about the strength of different shapes and how best to create a tower. These discussions all featured various engineering terms and concepts, and although the teachers weren’t surprised, they seemed happy to be reminded of how simple, playful activities can often deliver very real learning outcomes.


What I learnt

At the end of the two days, the feedback I received from the teachers is that they enjoyed having the freedom to choose the amount of time they spent on each activity, and when they would go to each station. Having the luxury of two days to spend on their own free-choice learning is something many teachers do not often experience, as much of their professional development time is allocated to ‘official’ updates and pre-selected workshops. They also commented on how the hands on, playful approach to learning made the two days enjoyable, stress free and therefore, more likely to have a long lasting impact on their thinking. Many said they had new ideas and inspirations for how they would implement different opportunities for students to play while learning. From this, I learnt that it doesn’t matter whether you are an adult or a child, or whether you are learning about pedagogy, digital technologies or STEM- play is a powerful way of creating engagement, stimulating creativity and inviting new ideas.

Based on this experience, I am drawn to reflect on what this means for professional learning and the model of connected learning, which suggests that when academic orientation, peer support and personal interest are combined, a ‘sweet spot’ is created where rich, real and relevant learning can take place. Where does play fit in this model, and can the ‘hands on’ aspect be enhanced by social media technologies? Food for thought!!

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