Try This … honouring the true value of play

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All the keys in Try This …  draw on the vital and highly sophisticated human behaviour known as play. Socio-dramatic play is at the heart of Dramatic Inquiry. Sounds like fun, but what is it, and what’s the value for children’s learning?

First, let’s get some misconceptions out of the way. While people might sometimes use the word ‘play’ to talk about lighthearted meaningless activity, or see it as the opposite of ‘work’, this deficit use of the language says more about our society’s attitudes to children than it does about the value of play itself. In fact, play is crucially important to human development. We can’t thrive without it. I remember some years ago talking to a biologist who gave me an evolutionary perspective. He said that the fact human beings engage in play for the first 10 -14 years of our lives shows we really need it for our development. It takes a lot of energy and time, thus if play wasn’t vitally important for humans, we would have evolved away from doing it. If only more people saw it that way!

There are lots of forms of play, but socio-dramatic play is the most sophisticated as it combines all the others. Socio dramatic play is where children imagine they are other people; mums and dads, firefights, shopkeepers, superheroes, characters from stories and popular culture, and so on. Closely related to this is projective play, where children create miniature worlds to control through dolls, puppets, action figures, toy cars, animals and so on. In both forms of play, children use their imaginations to represent the people, stories, and events they see and hear around them and to create new, imagined ones.

This kind of play is highly social: it’s how young children learn to emotionally regulate, take turns, make offers and build on each others’ ideas. Through play, children get to try on a range of exciting social and power roles in a safe ‘no penalty’ zone. They also develop the crucial skill of empathy. In socio-dramatic play, children do this by ‘being’ the other people. In projective play, they get to experience ‘overseeing’ the imagined world in a position of control; creating settings and objects and playing and replaying interactions and adventures at arms length. 

Socio-dramatic play and projective play are foundational for academic learning. They encourage gross and fine motor movement skills and give children the opportunities to build skills and knowledge in manipulating materials. They also involve symbolic substitution: a wooden block to represent a phone; a plastic figure for a person; some pebbles for money, and so on. In this way children are laying the foundations for literacy – where written words are symbolic substitutions for sounds – which are in turn symbolic substitutions for things or experiences. 

And dramatic play is all about inquiry. Through their play, children can explore and wonder about complex concepts from the real world: power, gender, settings, events, tensions, consequences, archetypes, and perspectives. By playing out and exploring multiple perspectives, children can make sense of the world and their own place in it. They do all this while also having deep, fulfilling, memorable fun.

As adults, we grow out of the need for socio-dramatic and projective play (or do we? Cosplay anyone?) However, we’ve all been children, and so as teachers we can choose to rediscover and reconnect with this play-full side of ourselves. Especially if we remember that by doing so we are tapping into a sophisticated human activity which has evolved within us for the purpose of learning. The keys in Try This … will help you and your students draw on the benefits of play as you negotiate, explore and make meaning together in imagined worlds. 

Try This … creating a secret base!

Here’s an exciting teaching sequence, created using the ‘Read a Sign’ key. The context springs from some kind of ‘sign’ that students can read meaning into. In this case it’s two simple words written on the board, or a large piece of paper: “TOP SECRET”. Students begin by imagining the sort of place these words might describe. Then they think about the kind of people who might work in such a setting, and the security set up it would require. This is a highly engaging context, especially for those with a love of action and adventure. It’s one you can really trust to build buy-in from the class: there’s so much in it to light up the imagination. It’s great fun for the teacher too. Why not give it a go with your students and see for yourself! 

A note on planning

I first saw Tim model this sequence with a year 5-6 class in Auckland. A few weeks later I was working with another group of year 5-6s in Northland and looking for ideas to hook them into a local history unit. The curriculum learning involved a real WW2 military base that once occupied the site of their school. With a little tweaking of the context, Tim’s sequence provided a great way in. It was pleasing to see every student in the class fully engaged. And as you’ll see in step 7, we were even able to bring in spelling! The photos are from Tim’s teaching in Auckland, the planning sequence is the Northland version.



  1. Bring class together
  2. Start by reading the narrative text prepared in advance 

We’re deep in the Northland countryside. It’s late at night. The light from the moon picks out something silver glinting in the darkness of the trees. Is it metallic? Everything seems quiet apart from the sound of crickets and the call of a morepork. The wind stirs and there is a slight vibration underground. It’s not an earthquake … It seems there is some kind of human activity happening under our feet!

  1. Share the sign with the students

Wrote on a piece of paper ‘TOP SECRET’.

  1. Ask ‘what do you make of this? Give time for discussion.

Prompts included ‘What do those words mean?’ Why ‘top’? Where might a sign like this be found? 

  1. Introduce an element of tension

What’s the most top secret thing that might be stored in a file with this on the front?  

  1. Give the students a task

Invited students to stand up. Revisited the opening text to establish the idea of the top secret base – possibly hidden underground in the local area. Asked them ‘if we were the people charged with looking after this secret base, what qualities would we need to have?’ Invited them to think about the security system that would be required. Then to break into pairs and enact the testing of that system – one person being the person coming to work at the base, the other being the security system. 

Through negotiation, the class agreed the system would need to have a minimum of 3 levels of security. Students worked on this enactively for a while, through play. Then as a whole class we ‘tested’ the security system. As each pair demonstrated their security system to the class, I used teacher-in-role voice as a high status figure barking orders and managing the security checks “security level 3, ready? Check now! Report…!” 

  1. Use the activity as an opportunity to develop other areas of the curriculum

After some discussion and reflection, students were invited to make a written report on their security system check. This was framed as something to be sent to the Chief of the military base. This was an opportunity to check spelling accuracy for words like ‘malfunctioning’ ‘check’ ‘facial recognition’ ‘security’ etc. All students were engaged in the writing and re-editing of their work. When finished, reports were ritually ‘submitted’ via placing on the teachers’ desk.

  1. Students might later record these events as a chronological record or diary entry (this step was folded in to step 7)

Ideas for further development

After spending some time exploring the context through other keys (for example ‘create a drawing’ to depict the upper and lower levels of the imaginary spy base), links could be drawn with the real world, local history context e.g. “Here’s the thing … Back in World War 2 there was a REAL military base right where we are standing now. It wasn’t quite the same as the one we created in our stories, but there were parallels. The real base was kept hidden from the road, it was used for top secret purposes, it had security systems for people going in and out, and it was staffed by a team of highly trained experts. Shall we find out more?” 

Try This… a human superpower

What if I told you, you had a superpower? A power so common place and ordinary we hardly give it a second thought, yet so powerful it has transformed the world and the evolution of our species. This superpower is free, instantly available, and limitless. It works whenever we want it and sets us apart from every other creature on the planet.

I am, of course, talking about imagination.

Imagination is extraordinary, it has the capability to take us anywhere, be anyone, at any time, doing anything. We have it hardwired into our brains and no one has to teach us how to use it.

Kieran Egan, the Irish-Canadian philosopher of education, argued imagination is not just a fanciful or creative aspect of human thinking, but a fundamental cognitive tool that plays a crucial role in how individuals learn and make sense of the world. Imagination allows learners to create mental images, stories, and metaphors that help them understand complex concepts and ideas.

In “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” Yuval Noah Harari explores the idea that the cognitive revolution, which marked the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to settled agricultural communities, was fuelled by human imagination. He suggests our ability to imagine and believe in shared myths, stories, and concepts (such as religion, money, and nations) played a crucial role in the development of complex societies.

This superpower is the greatest resource we have in the classroom, yet how often do we use it? How often do we ask our students to use their imagination for learning and what tools and strategies do we have for developing and harnessing it? On the whole, imagination is treated with suspicion in education. Side lined into the creative arts or story writing. Yet it has enormous potential to engage students in learning and make curriculum content meaningful and interesting.

Egan argues, the reason for this side lining is because imagination is messy stuff, it is difficult to measure and, despite being utterly commonplace, difficult to explain and utilise. As a consequence, traditional education has created methods that ignore it or circumnavigate it. Concentrating instead on direct instruction techniques, which focus on transmission and memory retention.

These traditional methods, while having the benefit of being simple and easy to use, ignore the full capabilities of the human mind to engage with content and often make learning monotonous and boring, turning studying into a chore and switching children off education.

The same avoidance has happened in the field of research. Despite the focus on educational research over the last ten years and the emphasis on using ‘what works’ in teacher training, very little has been done to look at the role of imagination in learning and to develop strategies that use imagination in the classroom.

This, we believe, is a mistake. We believe imagination should be a major field of research in education and the development of strategies for using imagination in learning, a priority. We believe imagination has a crucial role to play in education and, by avoiding it, we are missing a fundamental dimension of teaching and learning.

In ‘Try This…’ we have thought hard about how to incorporate imagination into lessons and have created forty ‘keys’ – step-by-step strategies – to make the process both easy and enjoyable. These keys harness imagination in five fundamental ways:

  1. They use stories to create meaningful contexts for learning, that make content more memorable and interesting, giving structure and purpose to curriculum activities.
  2. They provide a range of different ways for students to communicate their ideas and understanding, incorporating speaking, drawing, writing, and enactment. Offering variety and getting students up from behind their desks.
  3. They generate curiosity. Humans are naturally curious creatures; they are attracted to novelty and want to make meaning from unfamiliar or unexplained signs and situations.
  4. They involve tension and immediacy. Activities that need to be done and situations that need to be sorted because they are both important and urgent.
  5. They involve visualisation and the use of dramatic imagination. Techniques used in theatre, film, TV, and other art forms to evoke a sense of place and situation.

Incorporating these elements into teaching and learning can make the educational experience more engaging, meaningful, and effective for students, encouraging them to actively participate and take an active role in their learning. Here is an example from “Try This…”

Try this … building student engagement to deepen learning

In an online discussion group the other day, one of the participants asked, “Is there hard data to show increased engagement has benefits for student learning?” What a great question! As teachers using Dramatic Inquiry we know what student engagement looks like (‘eyes on stalks’, avid participation in activities, students not wanting to stop for breaks etc etc). And it’s easy to assume that the more engaged students are, the more they will get out of the experience. But what is ‘student engagement’ and what evidence is there that it actually helps students to learn? 

Researchers and commentators agree that student engagement is a lot more than ‘kids having fun’: it involves behavioural, emotional, cognitive, and agentic involvement in the learning experience.1 Two large-scale studies conducted by US polling company Gallup in 20182 and 20193 looked at the impact of student engagement on learning. Their data set was vast, based on millions of surveys. And while these were American students, the findings make compelling reading for teachers in any context. Gallup found that:

  • Just under half the students (47%) reported being engaged with school. 29% said they were not engaged and 24% were found to be ‘actively disengaged’. 
  • ‘Engaged students were 2.5 times more likely to say they were doing well at school and getting excellent grades. They were 4.5 times more likely to be hopeful about the future than their actively disengaged peers’. 4

They also found that:

  • Student engagement and hope were significantly positively related to student academic achievement progress
  • Schools in the top quartile of student engagement had significantly more students exceeding and meeting proficiency requirements than schools in the bottom quartile of engagement.5

Wow – there’s your hard data! If these studies are anything to go by, student engagement is vital not just for achievement, but also for young people having a sense of hope about the future. 

A lot has changed in the four or five years since Gallup did those polls. In today’s post-Covid world, we’re seeing unprecedented levels of disengagement, absenteeism and school avoidance in the UK, New Zealand6 and elsewhere around the world. Of course, the quality of teaching on offer is only part of the solution to this complex issue, but it’s an important factor. If children are interested and enthused about what they are doing in the classroom (and if their families and communities know this) it’s more likely they will keep showing up and wanting to learn. In this context, teachers are asking, ‘how can I build engagement?’ with more urgency than ever.

One of the main objectives of Try This … is to offer practical tools to help teachers set up engaging classroom activities. All the keys have strategies for consciously building participants’ behavioural, emotional, cognitive and agentic involvement, by attracting attention, building interest and motivation, offering opportunities for investment and concern and even building towards obsession.7 And the good news is it seems to be working. Teachers using the keys are reporting back with statements like: “Highly engaging for students”; “hooked immediately”; “lots of discussion and active learning”; “lots of intrigue, building up over 20+ minutes”; “helped students get engaged – very interested in the story after that!”8 It’s rewarding to consider how, sustained over time, this kind of enhanced student engagement could contribute to increased attendance, higher achievement, and more hope for the future.

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  7. This is Heathcote’s continuum of engagement. See ‘teaching tools’ For more information see Chapter 5 of Real in all the ways that matter Viv Aitken 2021 (NZCER) ↩︎
  8. See ‘Teacher planning’ page ↩︎

Photograph (c) Steve Beaumont from Beginner’s Guide to Mantle of the Expert (2016)

Try This… drawing on the power of stories

Try This…’ is a book written to utilise the extraordinary power of stories to communicate and make knowledge memorable.

Stories are powerful contexts for learning.

Long before the invention of writing, humans communicated knowledge through the medium of storytelling. They wove information and cultural wisdom into narratives that could be memorised and passed down from one generation to the next. As time progressed, the creation of these narratives had a profound impact on the human brain. Stories, as described by Daniel Willingham, became “psychologically privileged[1],” possessing a unique capacity to form connections and transcend the usual limitations of human memory.

This remarkable power of stories works through three key mechanisms:

Firstly, stories organise information into memorable narratives, seamlessly incorporating characters, settings, events, and tension. These storylines function like pathways along which the mind can travel navigating between one piece of information and the next, forming connections and enhancing memory.

Secondly, stories affect the emotions, forming deep connections between information and feelings such as excitement, fear, and satisfaction. When humans recall strong emotions, they remember the context and, through association, the events and information happening at the time.

Thirdly, stories engage the imagination, a kind of superpower that empowers human beings to transcend the limits of the world around them. Imagination enables us to envision ourselves as anyone, anywhere, at any time, doing anything. In this sense, stories represent the most potent resource for learning – they are not only freely accessible and boundlessly available but also universally familiar. We use them routinely when we read novels, watch TV dramas, or enjoy cinematic experiences. Stories are woven into children’s play, shape our interactions with the world, and help us make sense of people and events.

The aim of the activities in ‘Try This…‘ is to harness the immense potential of stories and employ them as meaningful contexts for cross-curricular study. These activities are written to be accessible and easy to use, without the need for deep knowledge of drama conventions or access to expensive resources. They can take place in any classroom, with minimal need for preparation or planning. The most important thing is to be ready to use your imagination and encourage your students to do the same.

Some examples of keys using stories as contexts in ‘Try This...’

Key 21: Encounter Someone

Key 4: Step into History

[1] ‘Ask the Cognitive Scientist: The Privileged Status of Story’ D. Willingham
Ref. John Everett Millais (1829-1896) – The Boyhood of Raleigh – N01691 – National Gallery