The benefits of learning through play for adult learners

If children had one job, play would be it. A report by the LEGO Foundation looked at 26 studies of play from 18 countries and found that play enabled children to progress in several domains of learning, including literacy and language, social-emotional skills, and math. The outcomes of play are so powerful that the authors go as far as suggesting that “play may represent the best long-term value for helping children, regardless of background, to develop a breadth of skills that will last.” Most of us already know that, for young children, play is not tangential to learning. It’s the natural way they acquire knowledge and skills. Do the benefits of learning through play extend into adulthood?

Research shows that when mammals play, their brains are activated in a way that can change the neural connections in the prefrontal cortex that impact emotional regulation and problem-solving. Play also triggers the release of chemicals in the brain (such as oxytocin and dopamine) that help to regulate emotions; support social skills; and impact mood, memory, motivation, and attention. Although the ways that we play (as well as our motivations for doing so) may change as we grow older, there are still major learning and development benefits associated with engaging in playful activities. This explains why gamification is so powerful in both live and digital learning experiences. Play can also be incorporated into training and learning initiatives with clever contextualization, adding a degree of proximity, and allowing learners to play in the gray

Play puts learning in context 

We’ve talked at length about placing learning in the context in which learners are going to apply their new knowledge and skills—learning in context has been shown to increase learners’ capacity to retain, transfer, and use that knowledge in the real world. That’s why one of the things we do in L&D is create familiar or recognizable contexts to play and practice, such as role-plays, scenarios, games, and simulations. The point of these activities is to increase immersion and minimize the difference between the learning event and the performance environment. Essentially, it’s the adult version of playing pretend. 

Play puts learning in proximity 

Let’s go back to Legos for a moment. One of my daughters absolutely loves building blocks and Lego structures with her younger brother. They spend hours figuring out what they are going to build, how to make it, and, most importantly, seeing how many pieces it will break into when they smash it. I’ve watched them quietly from the end of the hall on many occasions and witnessed all of the qualities of play we have listed so far. At times, I come in to help with a particularly troublesome block tower or to sort out a communication issue, but I generally allow them to explore uninterrupted. They know I am there, which gives a sense of safety in their exploration. 

This past summer, the same daughter showed an interest in putting together a chicken coop for our backyard. She adeptly helped unpack and organize each component, looked for the points of connection, read through the instructions and asked great questions about the details of the final structure before we even started. She did so well that, after the first few large sections were put together, she was able to build the rest of it on her own. What surprised me was how well she was able to take the lessons she learned from building blocks with her brother into the real world as she has grown.

I never sat her down to explain details about the thread ratios of nuts and bolts. She didn’t finish a prerequisite course on wrench management. In fact, as far as I am aware, she knows nothing about the tensile strength of the structural steel being used in this particular coop. And yet, with minimal intervention, she built a fairly complex structure with many articulating parts from a simple set of instructions. From Legos to the coop, the thinking process remained the same, even when the tools and components were different. 

During play, she was given the freedom to interact with others and her environment, in a safe place where experimentation and mistakes are not only acceptable, but actually part of the fun. She could try different approaches to see what worked best for her given goal. She gained needed experiences from which to draw her own conclusions and inform her decision-making process. This blueprint for learning is highly effective in the adult world, too—especially when you consider the types of skills and traits the future of our workforce will need to have. 

Scenario simulations allow learners to play in the gray 

Research suggests that spontaneous free play provides young people with opportunities to learn social skills, such as self-regulation and conflict-resolution skills. A study published in the Journal of Motor Learning and Development found that children who engage in spontaneous free play tend to have better social cognition and social behavior than those who participate in organized sports. Additionally, a review of research published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health suggests that both free play and organized sports can have a positive impact on children’s social skills, but free play may provide more opportunities for children to gain proficiency in negotiation, conflict resolution, and self-regulation. 

That’s all well and good for children’s development, but what can we extrapolate about adult learning? We can liken discovery-based learning through simulations to the free play children experience, whereas organized play is analogous to many of the traditional learning models that have long been popular in adult learning. Sure, there are benefits, and learners do demonstrate knowledge transfer from highly structured learning experiences. But our experience shows that behavior change grows exponentially when learners have the opportunity to play in the gray. Additionally, it opens more opportunities for organic discovery and problem-solving that may not happen in strictly scripted content.

Scenario simulations offer opportunities for teams of learners to work through challenging dilemmas without a straightforward answer. Faced with competing priorities and differences of opinion shaped by past experiences, learners navigate situations that lack clear-cut answers or have both positive and negative consequences. And because we’re playing pretend, simulations provide a safe environment for learners to fail forward. We see it as a virtual, adult-sized playground where people can problem-solve, unpack ideas, engage with others, develop their skills, and create the best possible outcomes. 


See what it’s like to play with us. We welcome the opportunity to discuss how immersive learning simulations that give learners a safe space to play could benefit your people and your organization. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.

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