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5 ways to help adolescents learn through play

There are five characteristics of learning through play in relation to adolescents: meaningful, iterative, joyful, interactive and engaging

There are five characteristics of learning through play in relation to adolescents. Read about each of them below…

1 Meaningful

Ensure that adolescents see themselves in the activities

  • Adolescents should be able to identify ways in which an activity connects to their own identities.
  • Provide adolescents with a broad but relevant topic and ask them to reflect on what they know or any experiences they have had with it.

Give adolescents autonomy to make decisions that guide the direction of the activity

  • Facilitators can appeal to adolescents’ desire for autonomy by sharing learning objectives and activity goals and allowing them to help in design.
  • Allow adolescents to break down the activity and identify steps necessary to achieve a goal, giving them ownership.

Activities that allow adolescents to explore their position in new social groups and social settings can be especially meaningful.

Activities that empower adolescents to identify social issues in which they have a particular interest and work towards solutions within this context are more likely to be meaningful.

2 Iterative

Adolescents are already engaged in iterative learning activities, embrace and leverage this

  • Video- and internet-based gaming is one area of play-based learning that has embraced the value of iteration in learning through play.

Create an environment that encourages adolescents to improvise in order to seek out unique solutions to a problem

  • Rather than giving adolescents pre-scripted steps to solve a problem or meet a goal, allow them to forge their own paths to solutions.
  • Do not leave adolescents to flounder in confusion or continually repeat the same mistakes with no guidance; rather, allow them to seek out new solutions, fail, and support them in identifying what went wrong and what they can change.

Communicate the value of not just the end-product but also the process

  • Emphasise the low-stakes nature of the outcome and refocus attention on process. For example, if designing a self-portrait, focus on different mediums adolescents can use and ask them to test out new ideas.
  • Affirm the progress that adolescents are making through the various stages of an activity.

3 Joyful

Challenge can spark joyful learning as adolescents think imaginatively to solve a clear problem

  • Since adolescents are working on the developmental task of measuring up, developing competence and finding ways to achieve challenging tasks that allow them to try out new things in safe environments can be enjoyable.

Find ways for adolescents to be creative

  • When faced with limited resources, ask adolescents to help improvise or repurpose a tool/material (example: improvise a costume for a role play or transform a classroom space with only the materials available in the room).

4 Socially interactive

Create spaces (physical or virtual) for adolescents to share ideas

  • Plan for and allocate specific time in sessions for adolescents to share their ideas with one another. This can include informal debriefs and formal presentations.
  • Create opportunities for adolescents to learn more about one another through partner-oriented activities. Make it a goal to have each person engage in one meaningful conversation with every person in the group. This can be as simple as starting every session with a two-minute pair-share where partners discuss their responses to a question together.

Create a climate that lessens the social pressure of peer approval and status recognition

  • Facilitators must create a culture where thoughts and ideas are heard and respected. Creating this type of environment takes time and a long-term commitment to doing so; however, one simple way facilitators can get started is by modeling the type of environment they want in their classroom through active and empathetic listening.
  • Facilitators can also lead the group of adolescents in creating a set of group norms that set the expectations of how everyone in the group will treat each other.

5 Actively engaging

Working through a task/problem that is complex and challenging yet solvable is crucial for it to be actively engaging.

Set and maintain high expectations for adolescents

  • One can be supportive and provide ideas or questions when necessary, but similar to making an experience meaningful for an adolescent, facilitators should empower adolescents to think critically, creatively, and independently in order to take responsibility for how they will solve a problem.

When adolescents have autonomy in how they approach a problem, there is a far greater likelihood that they will become immersed in it.


Garcia, A., Dail, J. S., & Witte, S. (2020). Introduction: Taking literacies of play seriously. In Playing with Teaching. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill | Sense.
Honeyford, M. A., & Boyd, K. (2015). Learning through play: Portraits, photoshop, and visual literacy practices. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 59(1), 63-73.
Zosh, J. M., Hopkins, E. J., Jensen, H., Liu, C., Neale, D., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Solis, S. L., & Whitebread, D. (2017). Learning through play: A review of the evidence. Billund, Denmark: The LEGO Foundation.
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Coping with Changes: Social-Emotional Learning Through Play

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