HFT Summer Academy, teaching

How I Teach: Play, Fun, and Community

I recently asked my mom what I was like as a kid, you know, before the world attempted to impose it’s limiting narratives on me. She said: “You were obsessed with soccer, you were always very silly, and you just loved to be around people.” I guess not much has changed. I am writing this piece about “How I Teach” and the way I teach is very much aligned with how I was as a child. I bring fun and play into the learning space and I highly value a sense of community and human connection within my classrooms. During the Spring 2020 semester, I conducted a research study examining my own teaching practices of bringing fun and play in teaching and learning. Once COVID-19 hit and we were forced to transition face-to-face classes to virtual settings, I had to re-think how I would offer a meaningful class and in a way that allowed me to continue my research study. I recently published a newsletter article through Faculty Focus called Fostering Fun: Engaging Students with Asynchronous Online Learning which describes some approaches that I have tried for the Asynchronous portion of my classes - feel free to check it out! So, below I will describe how I teach in synchronous settings.

Play to Build Community & Prepare for Learning

I think icebreakers are underused in higher education. You don’t start playing a sport without stretching so why do we expect students to jump straight into learning and without a warm-up? Students who participated in my research study reported that fun and play at the start of each class helps to build a sense of community, allows students to decompress from their stressful days, opens students up for learning and to be more engaged and active during class. These activities don’t have to take very long but I find they have a huge impact on the learning community. Here’s a few ideas I have done:

  • Polleverywhere Check-ins - Polleverywhere sets up surveys where students text in their answers and the group can instantly see a visual of everyone's responses in real-time. You can make your prompt anything but I usually ask a single prompt where students text in their current mood with only using an emoji. Students said it felt normalizing to see that they weren’t the only ones overwhelmed or stressed from the day. An added bonus is that some of the emojis students submit are silly and also provide some laughter at the start of class.
  • Virtual Handshakes or “Selfies” - I split the class into separate Zoom breakout rooms and instruct each group to design their own secret virtual group handshake or instead you could have them take a virtual group “selfie” screenshot. After they create their handshake or screenshot selfies, I have them return to the main Zoom room where each group performs their handshake or shows their selfie. The group with the best example wins a prize.
  • Flappy Bird Competitions - Flappy Bird is a free computer-based video game that’s completely absurd - you have to get this little bird to fly through openings in pipes to see who can get to the highest level. I hold these competitions with all students in the main Zoom room, I give them two minutes to play individually and at the end of the two minutes, the student who achieved the highest level wins a prize. Hint: be sure to unmute everyone because hearing their laughter and competitive nature will just make your day. Or with the same idea and set up you can try Can You Draw a Perfect Circle which is also a free computer-based game where you have to try and draw a perfect circle with your mouse and with each try the game gives you a “perfect” percentage - as far as I know, no one’s ever gotten 100%.
  • Scrolly Questions - For this game, I divide students in groups in breakout rooms and provide them this webpage that contains like, a bagillion random questions. In their groups, one person shares their screen showing the scrolly question website and they start scrolling down the page of random questions. Students take turns and randomly tell the scroller to “STOP!” and whatever question the mouse arrow is pointing to must be answered by the “stopper.” It’s fun and it produces a rich and in-depth discussion that cuts through superficial ways of knowing each other - it creates an instant human connection. The questions on this webpage are just random but you could create your own document with tons of questions that are related to your discipline to make it have more educational value.  

Death to the Synchronous Lecture

I don’t think that a lot of lecturing is a good idea for any class but even more so for a virtual course. I bet you’ve been on some Zoom meetings lately where you’re just being talked at and I bet you had difficulty staying present and engaged. Therefore, I believe that synchronous class time should be reserved for discussions, role-plays, and interactive games. Here’s some ideas I have tried:

  • Role-Plays - I teach in the mental health counseling program so our classes naturally lend themselves to role-plays because students have to practice the counseling skills. No matter what the discipline, consider how you can incorporate role-plays. They enhance student engagement and drastically reduce the theory-to-practice gap in order to increase skill acquisition. Even within the role-plays I try to get creative or switch them up so they aren’t the same old thing everytime. One time I had all the students engage in a suicide assessment role-play with me as the client and I played Demi Levato but I didn’t tell them that ahead of time. It was a fun game in my head to see who would figure it out. They did.
  • Self-Initiated Research - I believe it’s important to make students responsible for their learning so instead of a boring lecture, I instruct students to research the topic on their own time and come back to the next synchronous class prepared for group discussions. Students then engage in a discussion and share something that they found during their research - an interesting and related blog, video, or resource. Student-lead research forces them to go down a lot of ‘rabbit holes’ as they search for answers which makes them learn the material on a deeper level and in turn, makes them more invested in their learning. I’ve also noticed that students usually speak about the concept with much more passion than they would have if I simply spewed the information at them.
  • Small-Group Competitions During Discussions - I randomly assign students to breakout rooms for small group discussions. I have groups discuss the topic for a certain amount of time, just as any typical discussion would go, but to enhance their investment and engagement in the discussion, I have them create some type of ‘product’ from the discussion to share when we return to the large group. Sometimes I have them come up with a three-sentence theory to explain an issue that has no one right answer, or develop an acrostic based on a list they constructed from their conversations, or develop “best practice” indicators based on the topic, etc. The ‘products’ can be anything because the type of product isn’t important, the actual discussion is the important part but when the students know they have to produce a product that they will show their peers to possibly win a prize, it makes the discussions much more lively. Hint: be sure to continuously pop in and out of the small group discussions, provide them very clear instructions so they don’t get disengaged or frustrated, and use the “broadcasting” feature in the breakout rooms to provide time warnings.  

Make Learning Dynamic and Unpredictable

I design classes so students never know what is going to happen next. I believe that the ever-changing nature keeps them more engaged because they don’t want to miss what is going to happen. They never know when there’s going to be a shift in visual scenery. Some students involved in my study said if they weren't paying attention, they feared they would let down their peers if we suddenly began a group competition. I’ve never required my students to be “on-camera” in Zoom but all of them always are. Maybe that’s normal for other faculty too but if not, I wonder if it has to do with the fact that my students feel that it is important to be engaged due to the unpredictability of class time. It might not seem as though you’re able to “move around” a lot while sitting in front of separate computer screens, but think about it as moving visually rather than physically. Think of the main Zoom room as one setting, breakout rooms as another setting, then different components of digital technology as other settings (i.e., videos, games, websites, etc.). From small group discussions, you can instruct students to go back to the main Zoom room to share their ‘products’ or consolidate smaller group discussions then you can take a break, maybe play an optional 2-minute video of a guided deep breathing exercise (because virtual learning is stressful!) and then assign them to breakout rooms again but this time with a different set of peers. See, ever-changing. I try to never stay in one virtual environment for too long so they do not disengage.

Sticker Prizes for Games

A part of my approach of bringing playing games into the classroom is having prizes for competitions. Before the semester, I went on Amazon and found packs of stickers. I found packs of 50 or 100 for under 10 dollars so they’re not all that expensive but they’re really cool stickers that students are excited to win. See the picture below of some of the stickers I have. When we were forced to transition to virtual learning, I decided that I would keep playing games and giving sticker prizes so I gave the students an option if they won a sticker: I could mail their sticker to them or they could wait until we are back in-person and on campus to pick it up. My students have said they really love the fact that they can still win these stickers and get them via snail mail even during a virtual class.


To close, sometimes I think people perceive “play and fun” in teaching as trivial or resulting in a reduction of rigor or seriousness. My student research participants disagree and in fact, they believe that play and fun helped to balance out the seriousness of the class so they were not so overwhelmed and could actually engage in the seriousness more effectively. I’ll end with a few quotes from them:

“We [students] bring the seriousness, we bring the stress - in mountains - to class so the play and fun lightened us up, but it never detracted from the class or the seriousness.”
“Play and games makes the seriousness more approachable.”
“Play allowed me to take my education seriously without having to take the stress of it seriously.”
Author image

About Lisa K. Forbes

Assistant Clinical Professor | Counseling Program
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