Why is sustained play important for the language classroom?

T.P.R.S. is a kind of creative, collaborative game, really.  Teachers supply the language and story idea; kids supply details and together a story is built.  Sometimes people make fun of us– oh yes, T.P.R.S., talking sharks and flying purple elephants— because, well, a) they’re either stupid or misinformed, or b) they think that the learning world should be– or is– divided into these categories called “serious” and “silly,” and guess where language teaching belongs?  Bottom line: lotsa folks don’t like fun, especially elaborate fun.

Anyway, let’s not hate on the haters, as kids these days say, but rather let’s look at some fascinating research about what Po Bronson and Ashely Merryman call “sustained play” in their great book NurtureShock.  Today’s question:  what does “sustained play” look like, does it help learners, and can we apply it to the T.P.R.S. classroom?

What do kids do when they play?  What did you do when you were a kid?  My friends and I built forts, and dams and rivers when the snow melted, pretended we were cops and robbers, Star Trek characters, bla bla, wrestled, built weird stuff out of Lego, played tag, invented complicated variations on tag, devised wargames… The games were co-ed and the main differences between the guys and the girls was in the toys.  We guys wanted G.I. Joes, Transformers, etc, while the girls liked dolls a bit more…but, interestingly, most of our imaginative play was fully co-ed.  The girls wanted to explore alien planets and have wargame teams as much as the guys did.

What all of this had in common was that, for hours that invariably ended when our Moms called us in for dinner, was that we were in a state of what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls “flow.”  We were unselfconsciously immersed in creative activities that we controlled, activities whose “purpose” was nothing other than having fun.  Now, it turns out that play– which all kids (and loads of adults) all over the world do– has legit developmental purposes.  Kids learn spatio-motor skills, empathy (via role-playing), sharing, etc etc.  There’s a good article about play here. But it turns out that play has other developmental benefits– self-restraint and developing “deep focus”– which can help us in the languages classroom.

In NurtureShock, Bronson and Merryman discuss the “Tools of the Mind pre-school and kindergarten curriculum, created by Elena Bodrova and Deborah Leong, one of whose central aspects is sustained play.  If the kids are learning about firemen, they make a “play plan” where they write down (as well as they can) what they want to do  and who they want to be for “fireman play” (“I am going to be the guy who needs to be rescued from the second storey of a burning house”). Playplan devised, they go to one of five “stations” in the class– firestation, firetruck, burning house, tree with kitty stuck in it, etc– and they play for 45 min.  If they get “off task,” the teacher asks “is that in your play plan?”

The program does other things too: it asks the kids to “self-talk” (create internal monologues about decisions), play “Simon Says” (listen, WAIT AND THINK, and, only then, act), and do “buddy reading,” where one kid gets a flipbook with pictures, and creates and narrates to his/her partner a story based on those pictures, and the other kid asks questions about the story.

The aim of all this?  To develop internal self-awareness, to develop abstract thought, to develop “executive self-control,” and to develop the capacity to focus.  As the data show,  Tools for the Mind works.  Why?  Because the kids set a purpose– one over which they have lots of control and which is both fun and meaningful– and then they are immersed in a state of “flow” in focused, sustained play, which makes their brains get used to long-term focus on something (playing at a role, listening to others, telling  a story, etc).  Crucially, it also teaches them to reflect and wait before talking and acting.

There is a fascinating aside in this chapter: in a 1975 Russian study, Z. V. Manuilenko asked five year olds to stand still, which they did for an average of two minutes. When the same kids to pretend they were on-duty palace guards, they were able to stand still for eleven minutes. Doesn’t work for younger kids and works less-well for older kids, but still…

Bodrova and Leong note that many of the demonstrated benefits of play are not reducible to isolated, time-specific, snapshot-style measurement. Indeed, they argue that the assumption that “the measurement of isolated skills over discrete intervals of time will accurately reflect the mechanisms of development” is wrong. Like language acquisition, play is complex and long-term. Their article is well worth a read.

So how does this apply to the comprehensible input classroom? 

We want ourselves and the kids to get into a state of “flow”– or close to it– defined by Wikipedia roughly as

  1. intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. merging of action and awareness
  3. a loss of reflective self-consciousness
  4. a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  5. a distortion of temporal experience, [where] one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  6. experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

a) When we are using a story, we are “playing” in the sense that we are creating something over which we have control.  The byproduct: kids are learning– or having reinforced their capacity– to focus on– and through– imaginative elaboration.  The kids have to remember details, listen, and contribute.

b) We are asking the kids to engage in intrinsically rewarding– autotelic– activity.  They are not “doing stuff” to learn Language ____.  They don’t “do stuff” for the payment reward of marks.   A good story is interesting in its own right.  I have never in fifteen years of teaching met a kid who didn’t like a story.  Hell, I can– and do– read short stories and even novels aloud to Grade 12 students…and they love it!

In education, what you really want is for kids to not know/realise they are learning. What they do should– insofar as possible– be inherently interesting. As a side-product, they learn facts or skills or whatever.

c) We try to ditch self-consciousness as much as possible.  We don’t force the kids to talk if they can’t or don’t want to (other than easy, choral answers– yes, no, one-word).  We make them feel “safe.”  We do P.Q.A. with our superstars, and our actors are kids who want to act.  This allows us to “smuggle” grammar and vocab into the kids’ minds.

d)  When stories rock, we lose track of time.

e) as far as possible, we try to “blend” action and awareness (of at least language) by keeping things comprehensible and interesting– will the boy find his lost cat?  Will Mother Nature punish the chica mala who is littering Starbucks cups in the Amazon?

The side-effect of T.P.R.S.– one which will benefit kids everywhere, as do the Tools of the Mind practices– is going to be an ability to focus.  Rather than providing a “variety” of “activities” which “address core competencies” and “attributes” and other edubabble, we provide one, deep, long creative and interesting activity: a story.  We’re doing via language what Vipassana does via meditation for the brain.

In a world where kids are on-screen– with texts to answer, “likes” to click on, links to follow and shiny chattery games to play– for four hours a daydeep sustained focus is a crucial skill.  Whatever you do in life, you need to be able to tune in to your activity, tune out distractions, and “soak it up.” And if creative play develops that…awesome!


  1. This is all awesome stuff and I am anxious to make the transition to applying more tprs into my classroom however, I am having a heck of a time making this transition. Does anyone know of a resource that can help walk me through the first steps of getting my class ready for this kind of lesson? How do I start?

    1. Hey Jess. Where do you teach? I would say the first thing to do is to see a Blaine Ray workshop. Failing that, a workshop by any other experienced TPRSer will be a great help– you really need to
      A) experience tprs by learning a story in another language as part of a demo (Blaine does this and so do I) which will also help you “get” the steps
      B) have the steps and the theory etc explained to you.

      Do you have a text you must follow? Any specific school board exams etc? Let us all know and we’ll get you rolling. Also, what language?


  2. Wonderful post Chris, thanks for all your work!

    Jess, have you ever done any TPR? I’ve found TPR to be a good bridge for folks looking to jump into stories, because it helps you practice the ideas of SLOW and STAYING COMPREHENSIBLE IN TARGET LANGUAGE. Start building some Q&A into the TPR slowly (if you don’t jump right in), like “does John jump?” or “Who jumps like Kobe Bryant?”. Also, Chris’ suggestion of being a TPRS student in another language invaluable.

  3. ^ TPR is great– 5 mins/class– easy and their comprehension goes up.

    You can also try Movietalk, which also will make you go slow (I have a blog entry on it).

    If you can master restricting (“sheltering”) vocab, going s.l.o.w.l.y., and massively upping the amount of interesting comprehensible input the kids get, you have solid starters for stories (as Jim says).

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