Purposeful Play: How Energizers Support Learning for Students and Adults

By Melissa Shoup Gheen

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We have all been in a meeting where the speaker has been talking at you for so long that your mind starts to wander—you’re thinking about plans for dinner or what to watch on TV later that evening. Chances are, your thoughts are probably on something other than the topic at hand. 

Your students can experience this as well: You may have noticed their minds wandering, eyes staring into space, still thinking about what happened at recess and not quite ready yet to focus on math class. These are the moments when you or your students need to reset and reengage, and when energizers can be best utilized.

Learning Through Play

An energizer is a quick whole-group activity that can be done anywhere, anytime, and with minimal materials and setup. In just a few minutes, energizers can add purposeful play to a lesson or transition. 

There are many different types and purposes for energizers. Some activities help calm a group down while others can build energy. There are activities that can create connections between people and those that will support an academic skill. An energizer may check several of these boxes, too.

Play in any of these forms holds an important role in the classroom and is crucial for students as they learn how to interact, negotiate, and curate healthy relationships. Through play, children become curious, develop theories and strategies, and learn to apply appropriate risk-taking. Play helps students to learn and develop social-emotional competencies (cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control, or C.A.R.E.S.) as well as academic competencies (academic mindset, perseverance, learning strategies, and academic behaviors) (Center for Responsive Schools, 2019). When play is integrated purposefully into the classroom, it deepens students’ understanding of content and helps them to develop a sense of joy around learning.

Adults Need Play, Too!

Play also holds important benefits for adults. Whether adults are engaged physically (Stenner et al., 2020) and/or mentally (Zelinski & Reyes, 2009), research shows play and playfulness foster social, health-related, and cognitive rewards. Play posi­tively impacts areas including well-being, motivation, emotional stability, and divergent thinking (Lockwood & O’Connor, 2017). In addition, studies show that engaging in play builds social bonds and encourages creativity (Lockwood & O’Conner, 2017).

No matter what your age is, energizers are a dynamic way to explore and experiment with new concepts and skills. Through connection and fun, adults—like students—are able to engage more fully in a lesson, meeting, or other activity. The opportunity to experiment, problem-solve, and reflect will strengthen and amplify understanding.

When adults engage in energizers with their students, everyone benefits. A quick energizer allows the teacher to guide a calming activity by modeling for students how to settle down and regain focus. After participating in a calming energizer such as Birthday Cake Breath or Pizza Breath, students will be ready for their best learning and teachers will be ready for their best teaching. Laughing and engaging in a playful energizer with students will have teachers feeling just as happy and joyful as their students.

Using Energizers With Adults

Just as the skillful use of energizers can help to keep students on track and focused, they can also be used to accomplish the same in an adult setting. A lecture-style meeting can make participants less engaged. Learning becomes more difficult and the meeting less productive. Like students, adults learn best in an active and interactive environment. Being actively engaged with the leader and with one another will promote risk-taking and honest, respectful dialogue. 

Adults, like children, need to feel significant, have a sense of belonging, and engage in fun. Energizers provide proactive opportunities that can meet these needs. When they are met, we are all more capable of and open to learning, and therefore better able to stay focused and on task. 

An energizer is a useful tool to motivate participants during a faculty or staff meeting and to help foster positive community with the adults in your group. When working with adults, consider implementing an energizer to build positive connections, foster a fun environment, and deepen connections. Allowing time to have fun is also important to help deepen relationships with colleagues, to build trust with one another, and to create a positive community. Spending just a few minutes to include an energizer can enable everyone to reset and refocus, making the meeting or lesson more productive and the learning more long-lasting.

Download sample energizers to use at your next faculty meeting.

See articles references here.

Melissa Shoup Gheen

Melissa Shoup Gheen has been in education since 2005 and has taught kindergarten, first grade, and second grade in the Los Angeles, California, area. She has a BA in elementary education and MEd in child and adolescent literacy. Melissa has practiced the Responsive Classroom approach since 2008. She is the author of 50 More Energizers! Purposeful Play That Leads to Learning (Center for Responsive Schools), available November 2022.

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