The Role of Play and Learning

foxnewsby Hap Aziz

I originally intended the title of this post to be “The Role of Play in Learning,” but then the typo made more sense to me when I considered it. The idea that play is an essential component to learning is gaining more an more acceptance in the education community, especially filtering up from the work of early childhood educators. This article by Bethany Wilinski, “If Children Are for Learning, Then Let Them Play,” sounds a cautionary note regarding the decline of play and the impact it is having on the attainment of basic skills related to academic achievement among learners. Wilinski’s article cites Alison Gopnik’s TEDTalk “What do babies think?” for insights, and Gopnik’s material is worth a view if you haven’t seen it already.

“Babies and young children are like the R&D division of the human species.” – Alison Gopnik

In looking at the typo, though, I realized that while play is essential to learning, the opposite is also true: learning is essential to play, certainly to continually engage the player. Without learning, play is little more than a series of repetitive tasks with no change in outcomes, no evolution in action, and no stretch to bring the player back to expansion of mastery. Interestingly, a (very) quick scan of the literature hasn’t turned up much in the way of learning as a component of play; most everything I’ve been able to find addresses the opposite, and more obvious, viewpoint.

So I submit the following questions for further consideration on the topic:

  • Can people play without learning anything? What does that look like?
  • Is learning required for play to be fulfilling?
  • Might we assess the quality of play to determine what learning has taken place?

The third question above is especially interesting to me, as the education community continues to wrestle with assessment methodologies. If play can be considered at least to some extent as a proxy for learning, then the assessment of play may provide greater insight into what has been learned. After all, the idea of assessing play, from setting and knowing victory conditions to evaluating individual player statistics across multiple categories of measurement is something we do regularly and fairly well. Well enough for us to improve play and hire or replace play instructors (coaches) based on player performance. Perhaps it is time for us to consider flipping the play and learning dynamic.



Filed under children, gamification, Hap Aziz, play

2 responses to “The Role of Play and Learning

  1. I am also intrigued by the third question. I work with the gamification of college courses. The initial design process always includes a piece such as, “Ok, what kind of game can we use to get these objectives across?”, which inevitably causes the development team to think consciously about what games are being played in the status quo and what do learners learn from those games. I always like to use the analogy of Monopoly. Like it or not, by the time you are done playing Monopoly, you know a little bit of real estate as a result. Using that model, gamified development teams always first visit the realm of existing games to see how they can move the learners to the objectives of the course. There are a handful of game dynamics that are leveraged well in the gaming industry (i.e Exploration, Race to the Finish, Construct/Build, Rescue or Escape, etc.). Understanding what gameplay is already teaching is a key feature in understanding how to move the learner to the learning objectives. Of course, “move the learner” is a phrase that is used loosely. Obviously, the ultimate goal of gamified courses is for the learner to move themselves!

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