Skip to main content

Deliberate practice and deliberate skill are two different approaches to developing skills. One is more structured and the other is more connective. One is more targeted and efficient while other other is more connective and holistic. While it’s easy to view these as opposing approaches, they can actually be complementary and work in tandem in the classroom.

Listen to the Podcast

If you enjoy this blog but you’d like to listen to it on the go, just click on the audio below or subscribe via iTunes/Apple Podcasts (ideal for iOS users) or Spotify


Playing with Language

For the last year, I have been working on a project called Launch Language. It includes writing prompts (with both short term and long-term writing), grammar practice (centered on systematically teaching verb tenses), leveled readers, and opportunities to practice listening and speaking. I even created my own logo and a mascot called Communi-Cat (a cat astronaut who uses frequent feline-based puns).

A sketch of an astronaut cat and the logo for Launch LanguageWhile the main focus is empowering multilingual learners, the concept of English Language Development is meant to be universal. So, while I include front-loaded vocabulary, sentence stems, visuals, and others scaffolds, I’ve been intentional to incorporate elements of Universal Design for Learning.

It has been so much fun to tap into my past experience in teaching ELL / ESOL to create something practical for teachers but also fun for students. In other words, I want students to play with language.

I realize the word “play” might sound odd here — especially with something like grammar or reading. But as a former ELL teacher, I found that play was a strategic way for students to take necessary creative risks. If you’ve ever learned a new language, you’ve probably noticed how scary it can feel. At the same time, the only way you improve is through practice, feedback, reflection, and then more practice. It’s why people who spend a full year in another country will learn a language more quickly if they put themselves out there and make mistakes faster. But this can feel embarrassing and even scary — partly because of something called an affective filter.

The affective filter is a concept developed by Stephen Krashen, highlighting the emotional and psychological barriers that can impact language learning. This metaphorical “filter” refers to the learners’ emotional states, such as anxiety, motivation, and self-confidence. This filter shapes how we learn a new language. I like to imagine it like an air filter with the emotions either allowing more or less language through. When the affective filter is low, learners are more receptive, allowing for greater language acquisition. On the other hand, with a high affective filter (with negative emotions), the learner struggles to learn the new language.

This is where play comes in. When students play, they experience a more relaxed, engaging, and intrinsically motivating environment. With play, students have a greater sense of autonomy and control. By integrating play into the learning process, students are more likely to feel comfortable, motivated, and confident, which in turn lowers their anxiety and resistance to learning.

In a play-based learning setting, the focus on exploration, creativity, and social interaction can reduce some of the stress and fear of making mistakes. When students are less worried about judgment and feel supported in their learning journey, they are more open to receiving and processing new language input. Again, they have a lower affective filter.

This is why I have developed various language games, such as the Scrambled Idioms game, where students learn and practice idioms in a way that incorporates play. It’s why I am including creative writing, student choice, and play-based practice in the verb tense curriculum. At the same time, if we simply say, “go play with language,” it can feel so unstructured that students hit cognitive overload. The choice would backfire and students would feel overwhelmed.  Students need structure. They need systematic lessons with direct instruction. And they need opportunities to focus on targeted skills.

In designing these resources, I have focused on an overlap of deliberate practice and deliberate play.

A Venn Diagram showing the overlap of deliberate practice and deliberate playLet’s take a deeper dive into differences between deliberate practice and deliberate play.

Deliberate Practice Versus Deliberate Play

In 1990, psychologist Anders Ericsson posited that we could master nearly any complex skill through a process of deliberate practice. This research was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote about the 10,000 hour rule in his book Outliers. Note that this concept has been misconstrued as a universal truth. It’s way more nuanced than simply practicing for 10,000 hours. The type of task, the quality of practice, and the nature of the skill being learned, and the feedback loop all play a critical role.

And yet, this concept of deliberate practice has grown popular in sports, in the arts, in music, in learning languages, in the corporate world, in schools, and in parenting circles.

However, there’s a different approach that we rarely hear about it. It’s called deliberate play. If you want to take a deeper dive into this idea, there’s an entire chapter on this concept in Adam Grant’s book Hidden Potential.

Deliberate practice often focuses on extrinsic motivation, with a focus on a specific measurable goal. It’s based on hard work and dedication. But deliberate play focuses on intrinsic motivation where the process is meant to be enjoyable. It often embeds key skills into games or challenges, leading to positive emotions, which help the learning to stick.

Deliberate practice tends to emphasize a singular approach to a skill and might even have rigid rules and tight criteria stating exactly how to do a task. However, deliberate play emphasizes flexibility. Here, you are encouraged to find your own path using multiple methods to develop a skill. This allows for creative risk-taking, mistakes, and experimentation.

Deliberate practice focuses on isolating technical skills through drills and repetition. The focus is on precision. By contrast, deliberate play uses a more holistic approach by connecting skills to one another. Though it should be noted that deliberate play can still be highly structured and even linear.

With deliberate practice, the learner receives immediate correction while deliberate play might allow for delayed correction, often in reflection at the end of an activity.

The following table illustrates this distinction:

Feature Deliberate Play Deliberate Practice
Objective Primarily aimed at enjoyment and intrinsic motivation, with learning and improvement as beneficial by-products. Focused on specific goals of improving performance and acquiring expertise in a particular skill.
Structure Less structured; activities are often adaptable and governed by flexible rules. Highly structured with clear, specific goals and often designed by a coach or teacher.
Feedback Feedback is informal and intrinsic, coming from the activity itself rather than external evaluations. Formal and explicit feedback is provided by instructors or through self-assessment against specific criteria.
Engagement Voluntary and spontaneous; individuals engage in play because they find it enjoyable. Requires a high level of effort and concentration, often demanding and not inherently enjoyable.
Role of Mistakes Mistakes are part of the fun and learning process, with low stakes attached to errors. Mistakes are analyzed critically to identify areas for improvement and to adjust strategies.

Note that both approaches are necessary for deeper learning. They key is to be intentional. By combining both deliberate practice and deliberate play, we can take our learning to the next level.

In the realm of learning, whether mastering a language, picking up a new sport, or acquiring a musical skill, two approaches stand prominently: deliberate practice and deliberate play. Each has its unique benefits and optimal contexts for application. Yet, when woven together, they can create a rich tapestry of learning that is both effective and enjoyable. This exploration aims to illuminate when to employ deliberate practice, deliberate play, and how to integrate both to maximize learning potential.

Deliberate Practice is the Path to Mastery

Deliberate practice is a highly structured but it’s not about mindless repetition. Instead, it’s about targeted efforts to address weaknesses and refine skills. This approach demands high levels of focus, motivation, and often, the guidance of a knowledgeable coach or teacher.

When to Use Deliberate Practice

  1. Mastering Technical Skills: When learning complex skills that require precision, such as playing a musical instrument or perfecting a tennis serve, deliberate practice is invaluable (though it should be noted that deliberate play can be outstanding for helping with skills like a tennis serve). It allows for the breakdown of these skills into manageable components that can be refined through focused repetition. In a reading classroom, deliberate practice might work well in moving through systematic phonics and blending work.
  2. Overcoming Plateaus: When learning new skills, plateaus are common. Deliberate practice is crucial for breaking through these standstills and achieving new levels of proficiency.
  3. Preparing for Competitive Environments: For individuals aiming to excel in competitive fields, whether academic, athletic, or artistic, deliberate practice can provide the edge needed to surpass peers. It hones the specific skills and strategies critical for success in high-stakes situations.
  4. When Needing Immediate Feedback: Deliberate practice works really well when learning a new skill that requires quick feedback for small adjustments. If a student is learning a procedural aspect of math, deliberate practice can provide the necessary feedback so that they avoid practicing things incorrectly.

Unfortunately, deliberate practice can become boring. One way we solve this is through gamifying the process:

Video games are addicting. Whether you’re playing a simple game on your phone or a complex game with rich world-building on a gaming console, there is something inherent in video games that draw us in. This is by design. Game designers have crafted the user experience to make gameplay habitual. And it’s not just game designers. Social media apps use notifications, badges, and metrics to get us to spend more time on their platforms. Health apps use these game elements to get people to get active and eat right. What if we used principles of game design to gamify skill practice? Here are a few ideas.

  • Make it easy to start. Games work because the barrier of entry is low.  By making our goals easier to attain and experiencing some “big wins” early, we gain confidence and are then able to stick with a habit over time. As you improve, you can increase the challenge incrementally. In terms of the verb tense curriculum, a major focus is starting off with simpler verb tenses and getting more complex. Similarly, each two-week unit starts off easy and gets progressively harder.
  • As you advance, you create “levels” for yourself where you can hit benchmarks and increase the challenge level. This allows you to keep the challenge level just above your skill level. According to the Flow Channel model, if the skill level is too low, you’ll often experience worry and anxiety. But when the challenge is just above the skill level, you are more likely to hit a state of flow.
  • Gamification provides direct feedback on your progress. You might have a progress bar or a series of tally marks. You might create badges for yourself. Another option is to use three jars with marbles and move the marbles from a “haven’t started” to “started” to “finished.” You can also create a streak that builds with each day you have participated in the habit. We can incorporate any of these feedback tools into the goal-setting that students do when learning skills. We can make it fun and visual.
  • Create celebrations. This could be a set of badges that students earn as they complete quests or verbal celebrations that a class does when they hit a collective goal. Whatever the process, these celebrations add an incentive to skill-building.

I used to be against anything that seemed like extrinsic motivation. As a reading intervention teacher, I would say, “Kids should read for the sake of fun” and “reading is rewarding when there’s no reward for reading.” But some tasks are repetitive, systematic, and even a little boring. That’s how I felt about phonics work, for example. But if add elements of gamification, we turn the process into something more exciting. But that’s not enough. If we want to take things to the next level, we need to go beyond gamification and into actual play.

Deliberate Play is the Path to Joyful Exploration

Deliberate play is a little less structured and more intrinsically motivated. It emphasizes enjoyment and exploration, allowing learners to experiment and take creative risks in a low-pressure environment.

When to Use Deliberate Play

  1. Fostering Creativity and Innovation: In fields where innovation is key, such as creative writing, design, or entrepreneurship, deliberate play encourages divergent thinking. It opens the door to novel solutions that can spark innovation.
  2. Building a Love for Learning: Especially for young learners or beginners, the enjoyment found in play can spark a lifelong passion for a subject. It makes the initial engagement with a new skill inviting and fun, laying a foundation for deeper exploration.
  3. Enhancing Social and Emotional Skills: Deliberate play often involves social interaction, which can enhance communication, teamwork, and empathy. In contexts where these skills are as important as technical ability, play offers a unique advantage.
  4. Integrating Skills: Deliberate play is a great way to integrate multiple skills that work in tandem. It’s great for learning aspects of chess, where novices play abbreviated games to engage in a checkmate. In Hidden Potential, Adam Grant shares the story of Steph Curry improving his footwork by playing made up games like 21, where he had one minute to score 21 points.

Note that deliberate play can involve significant structure and even include tight rules and restrictions (like Curry and 21). But the key element is to craft a game that is intrinsically fun.

Note that this is not the same as the gamification previously mentioned. Adam Grant actually makes a distinction, “People will hear that and say, “All right, gamification — are we gonna take a bunch of boring tasks at work and try to convince people they’re fun by adding bells and whistles to them?” The answer is no. Deliberate play is about actually changing the learning or the practice itself to make it enjoyable, as opposed to just adding some features that try to trick you into enjoying it.”

So, it truly does need to be enjoyable for students.

Integrating and Blending Both Approaches

While each approach has its distinct advantages, integrating deliberate practice and play offers a holistic path to learning that leverages the strengths of both. This blended approach can adapt to the learner’s evolving needs, making the learning journey more dynamic and personalized.

When to Integrate Both Approaches

  1. During the Learning Lifecycle: Early stages of learning a new skill can benefit from the engagement and exploration of play but you might need to include some targeted skill practice in the form of deliberate practice. As the learner progresses, integrating more structured practice can help refine and elevate their skills to higher levels of proficiency but then you can add more deliberate play to help students find more creative approaches. The cycle can continue with periods of deliberate practice followed by play to reinvigorate the learning process and encourage creative applications of the skills learned.
  2. In Collaborative Settings: Teams working together on projects or in sports can benefit from a blend of practice and play. Structured drills or focused work sessions can ensure skill development and goal attainment, while structured play can help solidify these skills through application and help students connect skills to one another in a more holistic way.
  3. Within a Single Lesson: A teacher might start with direct instruction and incorporate elements of deliberate practice into the guided practice but then shift toward deliberate play during independent practice. They might offer a deliberate play homework option but then provide opportunities for deliberate practice for students who want to engage in targeted practice.

As educators, we can design materials that alternate between practice and play, using structured lessons to teach critical concepts and playful activities to apply these concepts in new, creative ways. In working on my Launch Language materials, I’ve attempted to create a dance back and forth between deliberate practice for targeted skills and deliberate play for applied learning. There are handouts and worksheets but also games, mini-projects, projects, and Socratic Seminars.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

One Comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.