Four young students laugh while they sit around a table. A teacher, smiling, is sitting with them.

With Grant from LEGO Foundation, UVA Researchers Will Test Effectiveness of Active Playful Learning

Three UVA education researchers, with colleagues across the U.S., are evaluating a professional development program that coaches elementary teachers on how to use an active and playful approach to increase engagement and learning in math.

Audrey Breen

When the researchers and partners gathered to plan the launch of their 5-year study of Active Playful Learning, they played. Through activities like a soccer challenge based on proportions, the team got to experience how active, meaningful, collaborative, iterative, and joyful play can enhance teaching and learning.

Tara Hofkens, research assistant professor at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development, is a researcher on the study designed to examine a teacher professional development program focused on Active Playful Learning, an educational approach created by scholars at Temple University. The program  leverages play to increase students’ individual and peer engagement in learning and their active participation in the classroom.

With a $4.7M subaward of a larger $20M grant awarded to Temple University from the LEGO Foundation, Hofkens and colleague Bob Pianta, Batten Bicentennial Professor of Early Childhood Education will study the implementation of the program in Loudon County Public Schools (LCPS) in Loudoun, VA, one of four locations, including California; Texas; and Illinois. Margaret (Peg) Burchinal, research professor at the School of Education, will be leading the data center for all four sites. The researchers are all part of the UVA Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning.

“LEGO has for a long time been interested in the role of play in children’s development, including cognitive development,” Pianta said. “They have been working with researchers over the last 5 years or more to examine play as a means to encourage deeper forms of children’s engagement. This study is an effort to bring the science of learning and what researchers know about the connection between academic learning and other domains of child development into the classroom.”

With the grant, Hofkens and Pianta will be evaluating a coaching model for teachers focused on elevating Active Playful Learning’s six C’s within the school divisions’ standard math curriculum from grades K-4th grade. The six C’s refer to skills in communication, collaboration, confidence, creative innovation, critical thinking and content. Though Active Playful Learning is content area neutral, the researchers chose to focus on math.

“Post-Covid, educators have seen student engagement in math deteriorate, and national assessments confirm that math performance significantly declined in 2022 compared to 2020,” Hofkens said. “Active Playful Learning is an excellent fit for improving math outcomes. Using the same standards and curriculum, teachers learn how to make learning math more agentic and joyful. Our partnering district, LCPS, is doing a lot of great work in math and we’re excited to partner with them to support math learners at all levels.”

The APL professional development, though designed with student outcomes in mind, could also have an impact on teacher retention. The bi-weekly coaching program that helps teachers move their current practice toward the six pillars of APL practice uses a strengths-based and collaborative approach. Coaches partner with teachers in ways that recognize and support teacher agency and the importance and power of joy in teaching.

Reflecting on the soccer-based activity, Hofkens said, “Our colleagues at Active Playful Learning understand that playful learning is how humans learn, not just kids. Adults get to experience it, too. If teachers are engaging in this way, it feels different and it’s something that they can experience with their students.”

This spring, Hofkens and Pianta will pilot the study ina few elementary schools and then expand the study in the fall of 2024. 

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Audrey Breen

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  • Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning