ALIS Newsletter - October 2015 (Plain Text Version)

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The role of play in learning has been undoubtedly acknowledged when it comes to child education. Play represents an essential part of communicatively oriented second language (L2)/ foreign language (FL) curricula, especially for younger or beginning learners, and has been widely used in the form of different games, team projects, or role-play with the purpose of providing context for communication, collaboration, and opportunities for language practice. However, when it comes to more advanced adult learners, such as L2 or FL students of English for academic purposes (EAP), the role of play does not seem to be much discussed in the literature. In most cases, the benefits of play for adult cognition suggested by psychology, cognitive science, and other research have barely been considered. Yet, such benefits extend beyond the L2/FL classroom and apply to novice as well as advanced learners.

What kind of play can benefit cognition? There are different types of play and they all have their value, but it is genuine play (Power, 2011) that involves playfulness—displayed as behavior, attitudes, and emotional experiences that are spontaneous, such as imaginary or free play—that is of importance to this discussion. Based on neuroscience, psychology, emotion studies, anthropology, dynamic systems and evolution theory, and aesthetics and art research, Power (2011) defines playfulness as “dynamic, interactive, enigmatic, lighthearted, humorous, imaginative, open-minded, and transformative” (p. 300). Playfulness, thus defined, is relevant to Lozanov’s (1978) infantilization, a childlike state of mind in which “perception, memorization and creative imagination seem to return, to some extent, to the more favorable level of the earlier age periods” (p.191). This definition also reveals the relationship among adult play, emotion, cognition, and creativity, and will be considered below.

What are some benefits of adult play(fulness)? One is that it can lower (learner) inhibitions and anxiety, and thus foster positive emotions, which can lead to increased motivation, confidence, curiosity, involvement, and enjoyment (cf. Power, 2011); this, in turn, can facilitate memorization and cognition (Lozanov, 1978, 2009). Lowering anxiety is important for all learners, especially for L2 EAP learners who are often international students trying to overcome various language and cultural barriers.

From positive psychology we learn that positive affect, being both the motivator and the result of playfulness, has long-term cognitive, psychological, as well as physical benefits as it fosters flexibility; open-mindedness; and novelty and creativity in thoughts, attitude, and behavior (Power, 2011). This is supported by research in neurochemistry, according to which playfulness can increase dopamine levels and thus affect one’s cognitive flexibility and desire to explore (Power, 2011). Furthermore, from a neuroaesthetic point of view, creative/combinatory play, which is at the core of creative thinking helps explore and experiment with the relationship and interconnections between the elements and the whole by involving both conscious and unconscious thinking processes; this includes not only imagination and creativity, but also self-reflection, empathy, and metacognition (Stevens, 2014). According to Lozanov (1978, 2009), this type of play(fulness), supported by artistic/aesthetic and positive emotional stimuli and expression, is what helps the brain process and retain information better. From a sociocultural perspective, this is what could enable higher mental processing. It would be logical to assume, then, that through creative thinking, play(fulness) can also stimulate critical thinking.

Also, research has established that play (or lack of play) can influence not only cognitive and emotional, but also social development (Stevens, 2014). As Power (2011) suggests, “playfulness and creativity…enable developmental, psychological, behavioral and cultural flexibility” (p. 297), and playfulness in communication is fundamental to socialization. Thus, communicative types of play used in L2/FL classrooms could provide not only for communicative practice, but also for target-culture social skills development. In addition, from an evolutionary and developmental perspective, adult playfulness, a sign of neoteny (juvenilization), can help optimize neurogenesis (the production of new brain cells) and adult brain plasticity (Power, 2011). Considering all this, it would be right to agree with Stevens (2014) that the adult brain does need to play. But, how could we help the brain play in the classroom?

Certainly, encouraging playfulness in creative/combinatory or other kinds of spontaneous play would be one way. Also, according to brain research (Dart, 2013), wandering off a task (i.e., leaving problems to subconsciousness) is another way to let the brain be more creative—by slowing down the frontal lobes, mind wandering makes it easier for ideas to start flowing and to surface from subconsciousness into consciousness. This temporary sleep-mode state could be easily induced by, for example, taking a walk (as Beethoven did), jogging, mowing the lawn, or meditating. Brain research has also established that engaging in such mentally undemanding activities, including sorting out building blocks by color, gardening, and taking a shower, allows for the brain to make new connections.

Another way of letting the brain play (i.e., create) is by startling or surprising it. Startling can cause a shift between what is in consciousness and what is in subconsciousness (Lozanov, 1978); it makes one more open to ideas and helps remove mental blocks, making thinking more flexible (Dart, 2013). In the classroom, too, mind wandering could be achieved through simple, physical, cognitively nondemanding activities such as coloring, dancing, moving, or sorting out objects. This process of making new connections could certainly be enhanced through surprise. Thus, creative (and critical) analysis and evaluation of sources could be fostered, followed by critical reading and writing (skills very important for university EAP students). But are these viable solutions for the EAP classroom?

To investigate further, I would like to offer some insights from Lozanov’s Suggestopedia (Lozanov, 1978, 2009), a theory-based teaching methodology which has been found to accelerate learning while making it a positive experience. According to Lozanov’s theory, the childlike state of mind, playfulness, is most favorable for learning and can be achieved in the classroom, and in all communication, through positive suggestion, which is perceived and reflects on behavior and cognition both consciously and unconsciously. A childlike mindset is conductive to concentrative psychorelaxation, a state free of strain and anxiety in which one’s reserve potential can be released in the form of hypermnesia (or super memory), hyper creativity, and even control of one’s bodily functions.

Based on his research in psychology, psychotherapy, and neurology (very much in line with current research), Lozanov (1978, 2009) concluded that the brain does not process stimuli in isolation, but simultaneously, and that positive emotional stimuli perceived consciously but mostly subconsciously or subliminally facilitate long-term memory. Hence, the purpose of teaching should be to seize that favorable mindset by engaging both conscious and subconscious processing, both synthesis and analysis: the whole brain, and learners’ whole emotional-rational being. In order to do so, the Suggestopedic teacher provides a carefully organized, safe, inspiring, and vibrant environment by offering positive suggestion through, for instance, humor, storytelling, music, art, aesthetics, rhythm, movement, dance, games, drawing, or acting, while also suggesting high (self-)expectations, confidence, and trust, as well as freedom of choice and expression.

Play and role-play are essential in Suggestopedia. Play is preplanned and purposeful—it provides variety in practice and stimulation (thus also facilitating various learner styles), and, most importantly, allows for simultaneous conscious and subconscious processing of input. Encouraging playfulness in various ways through positive stimulation also allows for stress-free learning to take place subconsciously while learners are focused on the game or the role they play. Playful attitude is constantly encouraged, while competition is discouraged, as the goal is to promote group rapport and empathy through (creative) collaboration. In the process, classical art, music, and aesthetics are used to provide positive stimuli which help induce psychorelaxation and cluster (Lozanov, 2009) with received information to facilitate memorization in a whole-brain, whole-person learning process. Role-play in the classroom starts from the beginning as students are invited to participate in learning by assuming new target language identities. This helps protect learner identity and enter a new functional state (mindset) in which barriers are more easily overcome, thus making playful socialization and free expression possible. In all that, surprise is a constant element as playful creativity and storytelling in Suggestopedia are usually unpredictable.

While Suggestopedia cannot be applied without training (Lozanov, 2009), its relevance to current psychology and cognitive science research helps make it clearer how play can benefit EAP classrooms where various new academic, linguistic, and social skills can be difficult but quite important to develop quickly. It would not be enough, it seems, to randomly introduce play into learning, including in EAP contexts, with the sole purpose of ensuring practice, communication, collaboration, and entertainment. Play needs to be, first of all, conducive to playfulness. And second, in order to make learning more effective, play needs to be purposefully planned, so as to stimulate and engage both conscious and subconscious processes, both brain hemispheres, and both emotion and logic while ensuring enough opportunities for making new connections. But most importantly, play needs to foster positive emotions.


Dart, K. (Writer & Director). (2013). The creative brain: How insight works [Television series episode]. In N. Cook (Series Producer), Horizon. London, England: British Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved from

Lozanov, G. (1978). Suggestology and outlines of suggestopedy. In S. Krippner (Ed.), Psychic studies (Vol. 2). New York, NY: Gordon and Breach.

Lozanov, G. (2009). Suggestopedia/Reservopedia: Theory and practice of the liberating-stimulating pedagogy on the level of the hidden reserves of the human mind. Sofia, Bulgaria: St. Climent Ohridski University Press.

Power, P. (2011). Playing with ideas: The affective dynamics of creative play. American Journal of Play, 3(3), 288–323.

Stevens, V. (2014). To think without thinking: The implications of combinatory play and the creative process of neuroaesthetics. American Journal of Play, 7(1), 99–119.

Snezhana S. Harizanova is pursuing her PhD in linguistics and applied linguistics at York University in Toronto, Canada. She has taught EFL/ESL and is a trained suggestopedagogue. Her research interests are in explicit versus implicit and conscious versus unconscious teaching and learning. Her doctoral research is focused on Suggestopedia and its applicability in EAP.