Don Ledingham asked on twitter recently for examples of play type learning in the secondary setting. We had just finalised a coasts unit which involved a coastal simulator seen below. This lesson built on a previous word association task where students were mapping their existing knowledge of coasts and coastal vocabulary. This is a brief review of the lesson (it could be much lengthier and messier!).
I fleshed out an idea I had found for using sand trays to simulate coasts. The paint roller trays were ideal as they had variable depth and we could build beaches on the raised platform and water filled to meet the sand - matching our self defined idea of a coast as being where the sea meets the land. Students were encouraged to try some of the following; aim 'waves' straight at the sand, angle the waves, change the intensity of the wave, place natural obstructions in the simulator and see what happens (rock boxes were supplied), change the type of rock used, try placing man made objects on our coastlines and see their impact etc. I was very clear that I wasn't looking for a definitive answer to anything, but I did want students to observe and record their findings before trying to link to actual coastal landscapes.
Some observations would be that a few students struggled with the independent nature of the task, not in terms of focus, but in terms of outcomes. That said, the engagement in the activity was first class from all, including the non subject specialist support teacher! Some students asked really searching questions and others made very astute observations. For example, although no one named it, several were able to describe what is effectively longshore drift, as well as noting how it banked sand in some areas but removed from others. Interestingly, although it hadn't been suggested, several students tried building sea walls and one a protective harbour and one group recognised that their construction would, in real scenarios, impact on areas further down a coastline.
We tried to give the activity some endpoint via the recording, but I'm not sure that this is the most valuable aspect of the activity. The freedom allowed students to just try things their own way, experiment and probably make some different conclusions from mine, but some similar ones which they will ultimately keep from a memorable lesson. I've no doubt that it was useful, even if some of the outcomes were less expected and I think there is a lot to be said for just making the lesson enjoyable. There are so many pieces and links we can pick up from this in future lessons, even if the learning was messy, with a different structure and an unusual way to explore the new topic.