The term play can be defined as taking part in an enjoyable activity for the sake of amusement. Now if you were to ask a student (of any age), they probably wouldn’t consider the classroom a place of play. However, as educators, we want to make learning an enjoyable activity, so how can we make that happen?

This same question has been asked by educators for decades. In fact, William Higinbotham in 1958, was tasked with making the high school tour of the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York a more enjoyable activity for students. What he came up with was what most experts consider the first video game ever developed, Tennis for Two. This game was played on an oscilloscope and was intended to be used as a learning tool to teach high school students about the work being done at the laboratory.

Just like today, in 1958 Higinbotham had a hard time engaging the students, and he thought that some sort of interactive display would get the students involved, encourage them to ask questions and make the overall experience more enjoyable. It’s not recorded how effective Tennis for Two was in engaging the students, but it must have made some impact since over 60 years later kids are still playing video games.

Since video games were intended as a learning tool (and as of 2018, 75% of American households play video games in some form or fashion) it’s no surprise to see video games making their way into the classroom. Indeed, they have been there for a long time. Many of you might remember the hours spent on the Apple II playing–one of my favorites–Oregon Trail. This heavily text-based game provided students an experience of life on the frontier as settlers traveling across the country, teaching money management, strategy, and how awful dysentery was.

Today, video games can offer an even greater player experience for students, especially with immersive new technologies such as virtual reality (VR). These new devices suddenly make real what was once only imagined in education programs like the Magic School Bus. In order to really teach the students about a topic, Ms. Frizzle used her enchanted bus to transport the students to the vast reaches of the universe or down to the smallest atom to explore these topics. VR is the magic school bus. So VR is amazing, but as an educator how do you implement it into the classroom? Here are a few tips and suggestions:

Isn’t it expensive and hard to use? 

Well, the truth of the matter is no. There are a ton of affordable options for VR and even smartphone apps. If you can use a smartphone then setting up VR isn’t that much different. One great example is Google cardboard , a VR/AR viewer that is made of cardboard and plastic. Google cardboard viewers can be purchased for as low as $5 and work with a smartphone and a variety of free apps, such as the Official Cardboard app, Proton Pulse, and Cardboard Camera.


How does VR fit into the curriculum? 

Well, there is pretty much a VR experience for almost any subject matter. If you are teaching science, then why not try a lab simulator, like those offered by Labster. If history or geography are the topic, then there are several virtual field trips such as Google Expeditions. Then there is the Trench Experience VR, which offers students an intimate look into the life of those who fought during WWI. VR tools like Tilt Brush and Blocks provide art teachers with new canvases for their students to experiment on.

Isn’t it just a gimmick? 

Ever take a class where the teacher announces there will be a video that day? Inevitably, students see these as do-nothing activities. The reason for this is that the video was added to the class but not integrated. The active participation of VR, however, makes it interactive, though it still requires thoughtful integration on the part of the teacher to make this experience meaningful within the curriculum.

Is it worth it? 

Consider giving VR a try since it make the learning an “enjoyable activity” and thus add a  sense of play to education—both in the classroom and beyond it.

This article was written as a contribution to the Oklahoma Center for Humanities Fellowship program in 2018 and was published at

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