Table of Contents

“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.

Play-Doh

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.

Puzzle

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!

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

Learning & Development
Brian Washburn

How “Mature” is Your Training Program?

How strategic is your training program? How outcome-oriented, governed or sustainable is it? In today’s podcast, Danielle Duran talks about how to objectively measure your training program in those four key areas.

Learning & Development
Brian Washburn

A Conversation on Inclusive Training Design with Jolene Jang

When I participated in a DEI-focused session led by Jolene Jang at a recent conference, I just kept shaking my head. She would point out specific ways to make learning more inclusive, and I immediately thought: there’s another thing I’m not doing!

Learning & Development
Brian Washburn

Where Sales Enablement Meets L&D

Natalie Mazzie, an experienced sales enablement professional, feels there is a lot that general L&D folks can learn from the sales enablement field. Here’s our conversation.

Maria Leggett on learning & development resumes
Learning & Development
Brian Washburn

A Learning & Development Resume that Gets Noticed

When you’re applying for an L&D job, how do you best position yourself to get a call from a recruiter or hiring manager? Experienced HR professional, Maria Leggett, offers her insights in today’s podcast.

Subscribe to Get Updates from Endurance Learning

Brian Washburn, Author

Brian Washburn
CEO & Chief Ideas Guy

Enter your information below and we’ll send you the latest updates from our blog. Thanks for following!

Find Your L&D Career Path

Explore the range of careers to understand what role might be a good fit for your L&D career.

Enter your email below and we’ll send you the PDF of the What’s Possible in L&D Worksheet.

What's possible in L&D

Let's Talk Training!

Brian Washburn

Brian Washburn
CEO & Chief Ideas Guy

Enter your information below and we’ll get back to you soon.

Download the Feedback Lesson Plan

Enter your email below and we’ll send you the lesson plan as a PDF.

feedback lesson plan
MS Word Job Aid Template

Download the Microsoft Word Job Aid Template

Enter your email below and we’ll send you the Word version of this template.

Download the Free Lesson Plan Template!

Enter your email below and we’ll send you a Word document that you can start using today!

free lesson plan template
training materials checklist

Download the Training Materials Checklist

Enter your email below and we’ll send you the PDF of the Training Materials Checklist.

Subscribe to Endurance Learning for updates

Get regular updates from the Endurance Learning team.