Play first, learn later?

I also want to write about a recent experience bringing games into my classroom and trying something different. As I’ve explained, the framework I developed is geared towards small groups of learners gathering in my university’s self-access center. This is a voluntary group of students who show up randomly each week. Some students are passionate about games or just interacting in English, and these are the repeaters. But even these students don’t come every week because of schedule conflicts and the like, so Tokoha Gamelab has been evolving into something very different than a course, it is a free association that follows a 90 minute framework, but changes each week. Week to week consistency, or long-range projects (or games) are difficult because of the changing weekly membership. But classrooms are of course different—students must show up each week, and they can do homework to prepare and they can reflect after class and come back and discuss that reflection. These are some of the unique the affordances of the university course. One could also see them as constraints, as they are connected to a course syllabus, assessment criteria, etc., but it is also clear that the structure of a university course offers something unique that can be leveraged in certain ways.

I had not planned to do a unit on gaming in my course syllabus, but after a unit on “leisure” and a midterm test that tired the students out, I decided a week of gaming might be a good break from the regular syllabus. After their midterm test, I thus asked students to research a certain game online as homework (Spyfall), and promised to do some gaming with them the following week. Which is what I did. In addition to Spyfall I decided to bring one additional game—Ticket to Ride. I also brought a simple worksheet for students to make notes about vocabulary and phrases in the game and directions pre and post-play. As I prepared this, I was of course thinking about my own experience playing Bohnanza in Spanish.

But what I discovered was interesting I think, and it is what inspired the title of this post, “Play First, Learn Later.”  Simply put, I discovered what I already knew from the experience of getting pulled into that game of Bohnanza in Spanish: games want to be played as soon as possible. Play has a kind of gravitational force that I don’t know if we, as teachers, need to resist. Our research group has had discussions about the role of rulebooks, and the type of pre-game learning we think students need to do before class, and here I had a chance to experience this for myself. I had asked students to do research on Spyfall, and a few had (others admitted they hadn’t). I put the 2 people who knew about Spyfall into one group with two others, and I set the other four students up with Ticket to Ride and the Japanese directions. I told both groups to figure out their games for 15 minutes or so, using whatever resources they could (including me). I asked them to make notes on their handouts about words and phrases they thought they’d need in the game. But nobody did this. They were much more absorbed in just learning the game—a language mission with a purpose—albeit in their L1. That’s okay, because after 15 minutes or so they were playing the game, in English.  Now the handout became handy. I lurked around both games and helped them identify essential language as it came up, and encouraged them to write it down, which they did to some degree.

I’m not sure what will happen next week, but my sense is that the games have done a good job at creating affordances for interaction. The challenge of teaching their games and playing with a new pair of students seems like a good way to explore the language that was essential in understanding the game (which they did initially in Japanese), and enforce the language that became essential in play. We will see what happens. . . .