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May 8, 2024

Deliberate Play: A Game-Changer for Engagement and Learning

Regardless of the discipline you teach, chances are that at one moment or another, your questions have been met with students giving you the blank stare. This challenge is especially present in language learning, where proficiency is developed through repeated risk-taking and practice. This led me to become interested in the concept of “deliberate play,” a pedagogical strategy adapted from the evidence-based “deliberate practice” model of skill development.

Because play is a strategic way for students to take the necessary risks in a context that feels less threatening, it has the potential to transform learning into a more engaging, effective, and enjoyable process. In this article, I explain what deliberate play is and how I integrated it in my English as a second language (ESL) course—with a little help from AI.

Understanding deliberate practice and play

Deliberate practice, a concept popularized by researchers like Karl Anders Ericsson and, more recently, Malcolm Gladwell, is defined as “the individualized training activities specially designed by a coach or teacher to improve specific aspects of an individual’s performance through repetition and successive refinement.

It involves focused, structured repetition of tasks with the aim of mastering a specific skill. In other words, to make it highly effective for skill acquisition in fields ranging from music to sports, this evidence-based approach focuses on extrinsic motivation in the form of a specific, measurable goal. It is underpinned by:

  • clear goals
  • high levels of task-based effort
  • immediate feedback

Deliberate play, a concept that has begun to gain traction in educational circles, harnesses the benefits of deliberate practice while emphasizing a more intrinsic, enjoyment-driven learning experience. It allows learners to experiment, explore, and engage with content in a low-stress environment that encourages creativity and risk-taking.

In the words of Adam Grant: “Deliberate play is the combination of practice and play, where you take the skill you’re trying to build, break it down into core elements, and make those elements fun.” Put differently, while still being focused on specific learning outcomes (this is the “deliberate” part), it:

  • focuses more on the process than the result
  • encourages students to learn from holistic experiences
  • foregoes the immediate pressure of correctness

The following table summarizes the key components of deliberate practice and deliberate play:

Feature Deliberate Practice Deliberate Play
Outcomes Improving performance in a skill Improving learning of a skill
Nature Highly structured with specific, measurable goals Based on flexible rules to allow for creativity
Motivation Extrinsic: individuals invest effort and concentration, which is demanding Intrinsic: individuals engage in play because they find it enjoyable
Mistakes Mistakes are closely scrutinized to identify areas for improvement Mistakes are low-stakes, part of the fun and learning opportunities
Feedback Formal feedback is provided by an instructor Informal feedback comes from the activity itself

Deliberate play in ESL

Mandatory ESL courses in General Education often face the challenge of maintaining student engagement and motivation. The acquisition of grammar and vocabulary based on rules and memorization can lead to disengagement, alienate learners and hinder their ability to use the language creatively and confidently.

Deliberate play addresses these issues by incorporating elements of fun and creativity, fostering both cognitive and emotional engagement, making learning more appealing and authentic, and less daunting for students. While this applies to all courses and disciplines, for ESL learners specifically, this means:

  • learning and understanding specific language structures (deliberate)
  • using them in meaningful, enjoyable ways that resonate with them (play)

Benefits of deliberate play

The benefits of incorporating deliberate play into ESL teaching are multifaceted:

  • Enhanced motivation and engagement
    Making learning playful reduces anxiety and fear of failure, which are significant barriers to language acquisition.
  • Improved language skills
    By engaging in diverse communicative contexts, students can improve their fluency and grasp of the language.
  • Increased creativity and flexibilityDeliberate play encourages out-of-the-box thinking, which is crucial for language learners to adapt the use of new vocabulary and grammatical structures across different communicative contexts.

Designing and implementing deliberate play activities

While the benefits of deliberate play are clear, there are challenges to its implementation. Teachers need to carefully design activities that align with learning objectives while ensuring that they are both educational and engaging.

Incorporating deliberate play into the ESL classroom can take various forms, depending on the objectives and the learning environment. But, as Adam Grant points out, deliberate play is not always about playing games and is not equal to gamification: “Deliberate play is about actually changing the learning or the practice itself to make it enjoyable, as opposed to just adding some features that try to trick you into enjoying it.
Deliberate play activities include:

  • Role-playing scenarios and simulations (e.g., students prepare and act out skits representing how they envision their field in 2050)
  • Creative storytelling (e.g., students take photos around the campus or neighbourhood and then describe them using vivid adjectives and verbs)
  • Problem-solving tasks (e.g., students need to interact using past tenses to gain the necessary information to resolve an enigma in a pedagogical escape room)

Need some inspiration? Have a great idea but lack the time to execute it? Generative artificial intelligence (AI) can help!

A deliberate play activity co-designed with AI

For my 102-level B-block course (Anglais propre), after reading about challenges in today’s workplaces, I wanted my students to review salient vocabulary and reinvest it with respect to their own field of study, ideally while practising conditionals to refer to hypothetical (future) situations.
I decided to brainstorm with ChatGPT, using the following prompt: “You are an experienced ESL teacher skilled in using the principles of deliberate play. Your students, young adults of 18-20 years, have read the text on workplace challenges, below. Suggest 5 play-based follow-up activities that are relevant to young adults at the high-intermediate level and that allow them to apply vocabulary and concepts from the reading to their field of studies or future career. The activities should encourage the use of conditional verb forms.”
ChatGPT suggested:

  • Co-creation of a poster on workplace challenges
  • A collaborative challenge on communication problems at work
  • A problem-solving task involving employer and employee perspectives on flexible hours
  • A Jeopardy-style game on digital skills at work
  • A card-based role-play activity on hybrid work

I then asked the AI to further develop the card game on hybrid work: “Please write a complete, precise set of rules and create all the materials, including the cards, for students to be able to play the game.”
The AI responded with a complete concept in which “players compete to build the most effective hybrid work environment by overcoming hypothetical challenges and deploying strategic resources. The game is designed to reinforce the use of conditional tenses and concepts related to hybrid work, digital literacy, and collaboration.”
ChatGPT then went on to produce a cohesive set of rules, as well as 30 “challenge” cards (e.g., “Lack of Personal Connection: Team members feel isolated at home”), 50 “resource” cards (e.g., “Peer Coaching Sessions: Facilitates knowledge sharing and support”) and 10 “hero” cards (e.g., “Empathy Ambassador: Enhances the effectiveness of all Mental Health Resources”).

Details of the game as provided by ChatGPT before I revised the content and form

I revised the output, turned the text into a more visual layout, and printed it up for my students to work with. Success! They enjoyed the playful aspect (in this case, meeting random challenges, scoring points), and I observed them using the target vocabulary and conditionals over and over, which met my deliberate goal.

A table of one row and 3 columns is used to represent 3 game cards that can be printed and cut out. They read, from left to right, “Miscommunication. Team messages are getting lost in translation. Difficulty: 2 ,” “ Language Barriers. Communication is hindered by language differences. Difficulty: 3,” and “Lack of Team Cohesion. Remote team members feel disconnected. Difficulty: 3.”

Example of 3 “challenge” cards, which I made by copying the AI’s text output into a simple table layout in Microsoft Word so they can easily be printed and cut

Conclusion

Deliberate play presents an interesting lens for enhancing not only ESL courses, but college-level courses in virtually any discipline. By drawing on its principles, teachers can create a more dynamic, engaging, and effective learning environment. The approach not only improves language accuracy through deliberate goal setting but also enhances communicative competence and cultural fluency through playful, meaningful interaction.

How do you embrace the playful spirit of learning to unlock your students’ potential? Share your ideas and strategies in the comments!

About the author

Andy Van Drom

Andy Van Drom has been teaching English as a second language and linguistics since 2005, first at Université Laval and then, since 2012, at Cégep Limoilou. After completing doctoral studies in Linguistics (Université Laval), he obtained a second master’s degree, in Higher Education Pedagogy (Performa, Université de Sherbrooke). With the aim of supporting inclusive teaching practices and fostering student success, his focus is on the role of language mindset in learner motivation. Andy has published 4 ESL textbooks with Pearson ERPI as well as several open educational resources in digital format. His keen interest in pedagogy led him to work with Profweb (now Eductive) in 2017 and with the AQPC in 2021, 2 mandates that are still ongoing. His desire to innovate in pedagogy has earned him an AQPC Honourable Mention, a Forces Avenir Award and the EF Excellence Award in Language Teaching.

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