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“Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.”

Play is our brain's favorite way of learning

Recently I took my kids to The Strong National Museum of Play. As we walked through the seemingly endless interactive exhibits, I looked up to find this quote: “Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.” – Diane Ackerman.

Play is our brain's favorite way of learning

There may not be any hard science behind this statement, but we don’t always need empirically-tested data to be inspired by an idea. When it’s integrated into a learning experience with intention, play isn’t just a gimmick. Play can engage participants’ hearts and minds which in turn can capture their attention and can allow them to explore and navigate complex concepts on their own terms.

Here are a handful of ideas to bring play into your next session.

Play before the session even begins.

One of the things that struck me as we walked through this museum was how quickly my kids were drawn to some exhibits (and how quickly they dismissed other exhibits). Just seeing a Twister mat on the floor and a spinner on the wall, they immediately began to play. Yet when they approached an exhibit that seemed complex or confusing, they moved on.

In the world of work, I’d hope that our employees don’t just move on at the first sign of complexity or confusion… although in a training environment, first impressions matter. Many participants – especially those who have been mandated to attend a training session – will be skeptical that your session will bring them immediate value. So why not try to create the best first impression possible?

Scrolling Trivia. One of my favorite ways to prime my participants is to have a slide deck set to scroll automatically through the slides every 10 seconds or so. On each slide, I put a trivia question that has something to do with the topic at hand. I’ve found that when participants are surprised by some of the answers to the trivia questions that greet them as they walk in, they pay closer attention and ask more targeted questions during the session.

Setting the Table. During one session to showcase a gamified new employee onboarding program, my co-facilitator and I set out different game elements at various tables. As participants entered the room, we encouraged them to play the short games because we were going to ask them about their impressions of these games during the session. This was a way to help break the ice (without using presentation time) and to orient participants to the topic at hand.

But Brian, what if we’re not doing a session on to showcase games we’ve already created? Good question!

I’ve seen other presenters set up the tables in a training room with trivia questions taped to candy that’s set out in the middle of the table (which helps prime participants similar to a scrolling slideshow).

Getting your participants’ hands dirty.

Well, maybe not dirty, but at least getting participants to use their hands and their fine motor skills.

During one technical training session, we designed an activity for participants to re-create a technology-laden product by using Play-Doh. This replaced a 45-minute PowerPoint-based lecture and shifted the responsibility of effectively communicating highly technical information from the trainers to the participants themselves.


During a variety of sessions, we’ve used the metaphor of a puzzle to engage participants in exploring the topics of mission/vision/values, teamwork and effective selling techniques.


Solve a mystery.

My father recently reminded me of an activity he did in his 7th grade science classroom to challenge his students to use the scientific method. As the students entered his room, they came across a chalk outline of a body on the floor with police tape strewn around the room. Students were asked to examine the evidence around the room, form a hypothesis and test their hypotheses in a whodunit scenario.

This Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) theme can easily transfer over to the training room… and beyond. I used a similar theme several years ago with an elearning program I designed around adult learning and presentation skills in which a character had died at a conference. Cause of death: boredom. Learners needed to examine the evidence and identify which presenter(s) may have incorporated presentation techniques that literally bored a participant to death.

Murder Mystery

Play with someone else’s toys.

If you don’t have the time to design play into your next learning experience from start to finish, there are a number of applications that can get you 80% of the way there. All you need to do is add some of your content.

If you’re working with a live audience and want to raise the energy in your room by seeing what participants know, Kahoot and Wooclap have designed trivia games for you… you only need to take a few minutes to think of the questions (and multiple choice answers) that you’d like to ask.

If you’re looking to engage participants outside of your classroom, Quizlet is an app that allows you (or your participants) to create flashcards to quiz themselves on content they may need to memorize. Quizlet also comes with built-in games to help your learners review in a way that’s more fun than merely staring at note cards.

I do not know whether there’s science to back up the claim that “play is our brain’s favorite way of learning,” but my experience tells me that play is a pretty popular element to successful training. When play is combined with creativity, intention and the topic at hand, I’ve found that there are very few other ways to excite learners, pique their curiosity and get them wanting to find out what comes next.

Looking to bring more play into your training in 2019 but finding yourself short on time, energy or even the people resources necessary to do so? Drop me a line and let’s talk about how to make your new employee onboarding, sales training, technical training or other sessions more playful!

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