Turn your couch potatoes into bean bag bookworms: How to use playing as learning


Students arm wrestling and writing, an example of playing as learning.

Do your kids love watching TV and movies, or do they play LOTS of video games?

You’ve tried limiting their time in these activities, but it’s hard to keep them busy in the summer without them crying, “I’m bored!” and you feel like their not really learning or growing.


Let’s engage them by using their playing as learning.



Skip the next section if you’re in a hurry

Some of you need immediate resources to get your kids writing and thinking this summer, and you don’t have time to slog through the sciency stuff that I’m going to talk about next.


I get it. No worries.


Just skip down to the section titled “Play the What If …? game.” Read that and download the PDF. It’s ready to use with little to no prep.




For the rest of us, let’s talk about why it’s hard to craft fun educational experiences. Then I’ll share a strategy with you so you can use playing as learning.


Why it’s hard to use playing as learning

Have you already tried engaging your kids in playing as learning? If you have, that’s awesome! I’d love to hear what you did and how it worked! Email me or leave a comment.


It’s hard use playing as learning. You try to get your kids to write about a video game and suddenly the video game becomes un-fun. It’s called the “creepy treehouse effect.”


Here’s what that means: Imagine your neighbor builds an epic, three-story treehouse, equipped with elevators, slides, dumbwaiters, a drawbridge, and a squirt gun cannon. That’s an awesome tree house, but there’s a problem. Your neighbor is a 40-year-old single man. He invites all the kids over to play in his treehouse, but do you feel comfortable about it? Probably not.


Sometimes kids can feel like that when their parents invade their “play zones”—Legos, video games, movies, TV, etc. and try to use it for education. If you’re not careful, they feel like you’re a little creepy and this is weird, and they don’t want to play in your treehouse. Students often resist “educationized” games.


Two ways to avoid the “creepy treehouse effect”

In the last several years, high school teachers and college professors have been using computer games likeWorld of Warcraft and Minecraft to get students to write. In fact, there are several games published over the last couple decades that were designed with the purpose of getting kids to learn through play while avoiding the “creepy treehouse effect” (more on that next week).


Resistance comes when you say something like, “Today we’re going to play Minecraft, and you’re going to write about it.”


Eye rolls.


You are now the creepy treehouse man.


Over the next 2 posts, I’m going to share 2 strategies to avoid the “creepy treehouse effect” and get your kids learning through play:

  1. Don’t interrupt playing with your “adultness”
  2. Craft experiences that are first fun and second educational (next week’s topic)


I will also be linking to free resources to help you use these strategies.


Playing as learning strategy #1: Don’t Interrupt playing with your “adultness”

So here’s your first strategy: You gotta let them play without getting in the way. Let them enjoy the playing experience without a catch. This is hard to do because adults think differently than kids. We tend to feel that playing is not “real learning.”


Humans (especially kids), however, are wired to learn from play. So use that wiring. Let your students enjoy a full movie, show, or segment of a video game. Don’t make them take notes or try to make the experience “learning friendly.” That gets “creepy.” (There are ways to integrate learning directly into these experiences, but we’ll discuss that next week.)


Let them enjoy the experience.




Doing this will help them lower their guard, and they will often “invite” you into their experience. You are not the “invader” anymore; you are a participant, and as a participant, you can ask natural questions after the experience to help them think critically without them getting creeped out.


Then, after an experience, transition into a learning experience. Ask them a fun question about the movie—even something as simple as, “What did you like about it?”


Get them talking and interacting with the movie. Don’t sound too intellectual about it. Just engage them in conversation.


Then, take it a step further by playing the What If …? game.


Play the What If …? game



One amazing (and fun!) way to turn your couch potatoes into bean bag book worms is to get them hooked on actively participating in the media they consume. Instead of just watching movies and shows or just playing video games, you get them to think through them—and hopefully inspire them to write their own stories in the process.


In the What If…? game, your students will create new stories from shows, movies, video games, and books.


This requires little to no prep, but it does require you to engage with them personally. You have to be a participant for this to work. Otherwise, you run the risk of being the “creepy treehouse man” (see above).


You can play this game with as few or as many players as you wish.


The game involves asking “what if” questions about a movie/show/video game that changes the story in some way. Then you can discuss what would happen if the “what if” question were true. It often leads to laughter, silliness, and—gasp—inspiration to write!

Download the free printable PDF game here.