The notion that games and playing in its many forms should constitute an essential aspect of teaching and learning is so pervasive today (see, e.g., the free-play approach to education, the Playful Learning Landscapes initiative, the vision outlined by the Lego Foundation, countless national and local curricula etc.) that one may be inclined to think that this is simply the continuation of a long and steady tradition. That long tradition, however, has quite a zigzagging rather than naturally flowing trajectory. Originally, education and leisurely pursuits went hand in hand; incidentally, the Greek word scholē, which is the ultimate etymon for ‘school’ means ‘leisure’, and the Latin ludus can mean both ‘game’ and ‘school’. It has even been argued that most of the pursuits, rituals and institutions that define civilizations across the globe are essentially forms of play; see, for example, J. Huizinga’s very influential Homo Ludens. More recently, the right to play, as a way of exercising one’s developing capacities and as a reflection of (and means of) the enjoyment of life has been enshrined in a number of seminal documents. The 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child – adopted by the General Assembly and building on earlier LoN and UN documents – stipulates in article 31 that “States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.”


The IBE archive of historical textbooks is an extraordinarily rich source for a survey of this essential aspect of education. It demonstrates in many ways the actual use of games as an instrument for teaching and learning, but also provides interesting reflections – occasionally addressed directly to teachers – on the necessity and significance of incorporating play into the process of learning. The psychological and developmental underpinnings of those reflections and curricular recommendations are sometimes offered in prefaces or other programmatic texts (such as poems which summarize the teachers’ vocations).


There is a fairly clear historical evolution that can be detected in this vast collection. 19th century and very early 20th century handbooks tend to present the material (and the exercises, where applicable) in a fairly stern and, one might say, uninviting manner. We may well assume that in practice teachers would try to make the material more ‘playful’ and accessible, but that is at least the overall impression left by the handbooks themselves.

We may well assume that in practice teachers would try to make the material more ‘playful’ and accessible, but that is at least the overall impression left by the handbooks themselves. Starting with the 1920s and 1930s, there is a more systematic encouragement of the use of games in the process of teaching and a more emphatic connection between play and effective, effortless learning. This can be seen especially in many European, Canadian and European curricula. The 1950s and especially the 1960s bring about a renewed effort to foster learning through play and to avoid excessive didacticism.


Former colonies, especially in Africa, that sought to redefine their national and cultural identities, moved more gradually in that direction, as they struggled for a while to cope with immediate difficulties (some of the handbooks used in former colonies are, rather tellingly, produced using typewriters or are published in some former ‘metropolis’).


The connections between play and learning are sometimes implicit and subtle and sometimes quite overt, depending in part on whether a book is meant to be used primarily by students or to be used as a methodological guide by teachers, and depending also on the age of the students (with more direct references to games, the organization of clubs etc. when it comes to more advanced students).


There is also a distinction that can be made in this respect pertaining to the subject matter under discussion; more explicit connections between play and learning can be made, for example, in discussion about civic education, where the role of family or of the teacher in the larger context of a nation and the rights of children can become front and center. It should also be stressed that play and games are not put to work simply in order to help the students, whether in elementary, middle or high schools, to grasp and memorize information; there is often massive emphasis on the formation of moral values, of civic virtues and on cooperation as well.


What follows is a selection of 10 slides representing the various facets of the idea of learning through play, whether in simple, although potentially helpful fashion, or in more complex and transformative ways.


Partons sur le bon pied: mon troisième cahier d’exercices, 3e année, 1re partie

A fairly common, but psychologically fruitful, way of ‘taming’ study (say, learning how to read in one’s mother tongue or studying a foreign language) is the use of examples and illustrations which depict games and children at play. This allows the students to recognize themselves in such illustrations and, in the process, to learn more enjoyably, to understand more crisply and to memorize more reliably. Here is one such example from a French elementary school handbook.

Partons sur le bon pied: mon troisième cahier d’exercices, 3e année, 1re partie; by Marguerite Forest and Madeleine Ouimet; Centre de Psychologie et de Pédagogie, Montréal, 1960

Quaderno VITT, classe 1

An equally common and useful method of getting the students’ attention and helping them to overcome any (or at least some) anxiety about learning is, of course, the inclusion of games in the study material itself. Riddles, like this one, which can be found in an Italian elementary textbook, and wordplay or other simple games can activate a child’s brain in ways that cannot be matched by a more formal methodology, which can easily fall flat.

Quaderno VITT, classe 1; by Alberto Manzi; A.V.E., Rome, 1962
1960 · 1966

Handbooks that promote a playful approach to learning

Some of the authors of handbooks that promote a ‘playful’ approach to learning are quite keen on announcing their central intention explicitly in the very title of the book, as is the case with these five examples. The goal seems to be to put some of the concerns of the students in elementary schools to rest and to help them tackle such books – and implicitly to learn – with fewer reservations and thus more effectively. This can be seen in quite a few cases, including e.g. a handbook used in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico (Mis juegos…), handbooks used in German, Canadian, French curricula etc.

Mis juegos y cuentos; published by Laidlaw Brothers, River Forest (Illinois) 1962
Jeux de lecture: Rémi et Colette: premier carnet; by J. Juredieu, E. Mourlevat, A. Roy; Magnard 1961
Spiel und Spass doch lern auch was; by W. Kiessl and H. Triebel; Paul List, Munich 1966
La ronde des mots: mon deuxième cahier d’exercices, 2e année, 1ère partie; by Marguerite Forest, Madeleine Ouimet; Éditions Centre de psychologie et de pédagogie, Montréal, 1960
Viens travailler, viens jouer: manuel de lecture globale; Collection Cathédrale, W.J. Gage & Co, Montréal, Toronto, 1963

Around the World with the Children

This American textbook embraces an original approach to the early study of geography by opening up to the students a world that is both fascinatingly new and reassuringly familiar. It explores cultures – from various populations in the Philippines to the Native Americans and from North African cultures to China – not in a conventional and dry manner, but by looking at the lives of children in those cultures and countries and by considering the links between their play and favorite toys, on the one hand, and local geographical features, climate and institutions, on the other. The assumption there is that this introductory method will genuinely pick the interest of very young students and stimulate their study of geography – cultural and not only.

Around the World with the Children: An Introduction to Geography; by F.G. Carpenter; American Book Company, New York, 1924

L’educazione artistica per la scuola media

Art is seen in this book as an effective and creative way of cultivating a whole range of civic virtues in addition to enhancing aesthetic appreciation. Students (in this case, Italian middle school students) are encouraged to embark not only on individual projects, but also on collective artistic ones, where a careful coordination of complex tasks is required in addition to the development of artistic skills (e.g., the modeling of figurines). While all art classes are expected by their very nature to be hands-on experiences, the author points out additional possible benefits of creative endeavor, such as the improvement of social skills and the moral qualities that can accompany it.

L’educazione artistica per la scuola media, Volume 1; by Sandro Angelini; Minerva Italica, Bergamo 1966

Le travail manuel de 4 à 7 ans

Handiwork can often be more daunting and tedious than it needs to be – in preschools, elementary schools and beyond. It’s not particularly easy to make sure that it does indeed help children to develop their sensory perception, their coordination and manual skills and their comprehension, as well as the ability to cooperate in collective projects. One condition for achieving all that is ensuring that such activities are plenty playful – a point conveyed with clarity and in detail by this book for the use of teachers involved in early education.

Le travail manuel de 4 à 7 ans: ses ambitions, ses difficultés, ses techniques, ses limites; by Gisèle Calmy; Fernand Nathan, Paris, 1960

Citizenship and Character Education

This Canadian handbook of civic and moral education opens with a poem by R.J. Gale, intended not for the student, but for the teacher. Entitled “The Teacher’s ‘If’”, and clearly meant as a pedagogical manifesto, it lists qualities that make education truly worthwhile. Here is a passage that reminds the teacher that playing and sport must not be lacking from any education worth the name and that they are preconditions for happiness itself (note, however, the consistent use of masculine pronouns in reference to the students – unfortunately not too surprising, given when this textbook was published):


If you impart to him a bit of liking
For all the wondrous things we find in print –
Yet have him understand that to be happy,
Play, exercise, fresh air he must not stint…

Citizenship and Character Education: A Manual for Grades III and IV; by C.A. Scarrow and G.N. Griffin; School Aids and Text Book, Regina / Canada, 1932

Learning the Ways of Democracy

This is not exactly a textbook, but rather an outline of an innovative method addressed to teachers of civic education. The emphasis here is squarely on avoiding didacticism and putting ideas into practice in the most concrete manner. It deals to a large extent with activities for high school students, activities that can be monitored in a preferably discreet and hopefully helpful way by teachers, but are run essentially by the students themselves. This can be regarded as a serious, but enjoyable and profitable form of play. As the author explains, a pageant can portray the principles of democracy, a valedictorian speech can be an exercise in democracy, and organizing clubs or staging plays can reinforce civic involvement and the practice of solidarity.

Learning the Ways of Democracy: A Case Book in Civic Education; published by the Educational Policy Commission, Washington, D.C., 1940

Elemente de educație cetățenească

This synopsis of civic education, published and widely used in communist Romania, expectedly extols the presumed benefits of the radical regime change which had occurred in 1948. Following the suppression of any trace of democracy proper (and the ousting of king Michael), the Romanian communist regime, increasingly independent from the Soviet Union, attempted to strengthen its influence, among other things, by touting its support for workers and their families. Education was universal, compulsory and free, and it came with various perks, such as the participation of children in – again, cost-free – camps, under the aegis of scout organizations (such as the “pionieri”). As explained in the chapter from which this page has been selected, such camps, and more generally playtime and adventures, were deemed as a necessary counterpart to regular school education, the former being meant to support the latter.

Elemente de educație cetățenească: manual pentru clasa a VIII-a; by I. Ceterchi, A. Bulzan, M. Bendorfeanu; Bucharest, Editura Didactică și Pedagogică, 1966

Educazione civica

As part of their overview of civic education, the authors of this Italian handbook include a number of important documents that formulate the key rights and duties of Italian citizens, as well as the fundamental rights of people anywhere, and also of children in particular. Concerns about child labor and neglect, and about children’s right to dignity (including their access to proper education and also to recreational activities, such as spontaneous or organized play) is underlined in the 1959 UN Declaration of the Rights of Child, whose text is reproduced there in its entirety in Italian translation.

Educazione civica; by Coraldo Piermani, Mario D’Antonio; Garzanti, 1962

Educazione civica: per il bennio delle scuole secondarie superiori

Most Italian manuals of civic education mark the distinctions between different levels of community and outline the defining aspects of Italy’s constitution. Some of them go beyond such quasi-technical surveys and note the importance of everyday activities and their social significance. This page from S. Maiolo’s textbook illustrates the solidarity that can be fostered if the state or other entities sponsor summer camps, where free play and the natural enjoyment of each other’s company can teach young students to appreciate social interaction and group initiatives.

Educazione civica: per il bennio delle scuole secondarie superiori; by Serafimo Maiolo; Le Stelle, Milano, 1958