Home > Articles

Play to Learn, Play to Teach: The Value of Play in Learning New Technologies

Are you "All work, no play"? You're doing it wrong. Code instructor Elliott Hauser explains the importance of play in both teaching and learning, especially when it comes to technical subjects and skills.
Like this article? We recommend

Dig deep into the history of any great programmer, and you'll probably find a game. From Mark Zuckerberg to Bill Gates, the pattern repeats itself: A programmer learns to make something fun, and he or she starts down a long path toward expertise.

It's easy to forget the importance of play in learning, partially because the code that expert programmers write is often so serious. But many great programmers continue to take a playful approach to their projects. Linus Torvalds started Linux as "just a hobby," for instance. Failing to maintain a playful attitude might even inhibit professional growth.

Let's move on to look at how play can help you to learn technical skills more quickly, more deeply, and more enjoyably!

Game-Based Learning

The simplest way to get the benefits of play in learning is to play coding-centered games. The popular Koans series are incomplete statements in various languages that users complete or fix to learn basic concepts in the language. Ruby Koans were the first, but many languages have Koans projects now.

For those who prefer less solitary practice, CodeFights pairs programmers and has them race to finish programming challenges against each other. Along the way, students earn points and badges and get paired with ever more skilled competitors.

Finally, CodingBat is an online coding resource that uses familiar test-driven development to teach programming. Covering Python and Java, the CodingBat exercises require the user to complete a function definition that is then run through a series of tests. Initially, the tests fail, showing a red box. But as the student solves more parts of the problem, more of the boxes turn green. This process provides a great preview of an effective real development technique: Start your project by writing tests and then make your code pass those tests, one by one.

Although coding games can be excellent practice, deeper benefits come with choosing and completing a project in your chosen language or framework.

Project-Based Learning: Play by Another Name

The form of play that most developers are good at and familiar with is the learning project: an initial project such as a web app that allows them to learn or advance their skills in a new technology.

Simple project types that are available in multiple languages can form a kind of Rosetta Stone, helping developers familiar with one language use that knowledge to learn another. TodoMVC, for instance, helps you select a Model View Controller framework by maintaining versions of a simple Todo application implemented in a multitude of languages.

The most successful web frameworks have easy-to-follow tutorials that help new developers to get up and running in as little time as possible. By building minimal web apps, these tutorials get developers to the point where they're able to play—to try things out—as soon as possible. Some of my favorites include Meteor's tutorial, the Rails Guides, and the Flask tutorial. Each tutorial does a great job of walking new developers through the process of building a basic project, illustrating the neat things that the framework can do, and encouraging the developer to imagine.

You can treat these projects like playing in several ways, as you build to learn frameworks.

Making Projects More Playful

Many developers instinctively begin with a test project to learn new technologies. Whether you do this or not, approaching a learning project playfully can supercharge its benefits for you.

Think of how children play together: The rules are loosely defined and sometimes made up as the game goes along. Everyone has a general sense of what "doing better" or "winning" means within the game, so the play has direction. When play is open-ended and fun enough, it can essentially continue indefinitely.

You might already see how these elements fit into a successful learning project, especially if you've previously had fun with such a project. I suggest incorporating these elements of play:

  • Keeping score—better/worse or winning/losing
  • Open-ended
  • Self-guided

One additional aspect to consider is that many games naturally have an audience, and you should bring other people into your learning projects as best you can. When learning, it's sometimes uncomfortable to think of other people using your fledgling creation. But all great software is developed with a user clearly in mind. Think about your product's users as you develop the technology, and treat each project as a "game" that users can play.

Plenty of example projects are available, from blog posts to videos to programming cookbooks. How should you choose?

The Ultimate in Playful Learning: Building Games

Approached playfully, any project can be fun, but building an actual game can sometimes be the best way to get the benefits of playful learning.

It's easy to be playful with a game—they're supposed to be fun! While you're thinking about the user experience of the game, it's easy to connect the new skills and concepts you're learning to something that genuinely interests you. This is exactly the mechanism of play in learning: providing an authentic motivation for learning (and remembering) how the pieces "stick together."

This technique is also incredibly versatile. In addition to learning a new language or framework, you can use what you're learning to explore a new paradigm, such as functional or object-oriented programming within a language you already know. Or you could structure your games project to revolve around a new technology you're interested in using, such as WebGL. For example, developer Minh Tran wrote Jinteki.net, a clone of the card game Netrunner, in ClojureScript, in part to get a deeper familiarity with the language.

Experts in coding education have taken note. Online coding school Bloc.io, for instance, uses its online Ruby Warrior game to engage potential students. CodeCombat has gone even further, using gaming as a product that teaches students the basics of programming. CodeCombat has "gamified" the process, but part of the work students do is help to build the game around themselves.

Tips for Building Games

If you've tried the projects and gamification suggestions I've mentioned and now you want to take the next step, building your own game, begin by finding a game framework such as Pygame, which supports the common user-interface themes you'll need in your game. The online textbook Invent with Python is another excellent place to start.

Once you've chosen a framework, here are my top three tips:

  • Start small and build up. When you're just starting, think of your code like game sketches—quick ideas-in-code that help you to evaluate key aspects of your game. After you make several such sketches, you'll be able to identify the most engaging elements of what you've built, and then you can build on those for your full game. Thinking of code blocks as rough sketches also can help with writer's block.
  • Identify a core mechanic that's fun. Is your core mechanic collecting resources or points? Avoiding bad guys? Solving a puzzle? This simple mechanic should be at least mildly interesting without the whiz-bang of graphics or a full interface. Once you've identified this core mechanic of fun and interest, accentuate it and build your game around it.
  • Break the mechanic. This is the hidden reason we love games: We get to break the rules. Power-ups, level-ups, and special characters all let us bend or break the rules of the game. Think of the Star in Super Mario brothers. Suddenly, Mario is not only invincible; he wants to run into monsters instead of avoiding them. How can your game allow the user to bend the rules?

Speaking of breaking or bending the rules, make sure you do a little of that while you're learning! Fun and genuine excitement are fuel that the brain uses to learn new things. The more you're able to incorporate fun and excitement into your technical training, the more effective that training will be, and the more you'll enjoy the process!

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020