Playing in learning. How it might be time to play a little harder.

I was lucky enough to see a couple of otters yesterday. They’re one of the rarest UK mammals, notoriously difficult to find in the wild, so i upped my chances by catching them in a zoo. They were playing. One had a piece of apple that he kept chasing, catching, pushing away into the water current and then chasing again. The other was lying on his back, with a stone on his tummy, rolling it over himself, catching it, moving it in circular motions, batting it backwards and forwards. Occasionally he would drop it, make an annoyed noise, pick it up and start again. They kept this up for ages, and it struck me that this was really one of the very few times that i’ve actually seen an animal doing something that comes very naturally to us; playing. Just for the sake of playing.

I suppose you could argue that they were honing skills, practicing hunting techniques, refining motions and gestures, and maybe they were (at one level, that can be argued to be the foundation of all play), but it was apparent that they were certainly enjoying it.

There’s no great surprise in the view that playing and learning are aligned, and indeed there are plenty of people and organisations that focus on tapping into this, learning through playing. We utilise the ideas of playing in many of our own e-learning solutions, be they simulated systems that users can play with, or social scenarios that users can explore and try out different conversational patterns or styles.

We can certainly use play in learning design, but there is more to it than this. The thing i was watching yesterday was less structured, play for the sake of playing.

Maybe this is the thing that we lose as we get older, the desire to play in such unstructured ways. We may engage in focussed play activities, but are less likely to engage in random play, or indeed to join other people’s games. Unless the world of online gaming counts?

When children play, they act out social and physical scenarios, trying out activities and behaviours and rehearsing ranges of responses. They use dolls and figurines to represent different people, and toy cars or stones to represent objects. Whilst both adults and children play, maybe the greatest difference is that adults tend to ground their play in reality, in realistic situations, whilst when you’re a child, anything goes.

There’s some great work that goes on in terms of business simulations and learning games, but a lot of it is still seen as peripheral and someone weak learning. Maybe we should take another look and see what we can learn from playing more?

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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