A conversation on Twitter this morning has made me think about play. Playing is all about learning: it can be a solitary activity or done with friends, it can be done in dedicated ‘formally‘ defined play spaces, or it can be done on the bus or in a shop. It can be done within a structure, within set rules, or totally without form or purpose. Play can be defined as ‘action without consequences‘, it’s a ‘free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’‘. Normal rules do not apply: it’s a safe space.
I typically use a six step methodology to explore learning: setting the context, demonstrating key elements, allowing leaners to explore it, reflection (both internal and external), formal assessment and footsteps back into our everyday reality. Within this methodology, ‘exploration‘ includes space for ‘playing‘. It’s the place to make mistakes and to learn, without consequence.
It’s odd how organisations can be averse to the word ‘play‘, making the false assumption that unstructured play is somehow less valid than formal approaches, despite the fact that we must surely learn far more in life by playing with things than we do by being taught them. You have to make your own mistakes, and it’s better to make as many of them as possible in the safest way.
If you’ve read any of my recent pieces that bring social and mobile learning alongside this methodology, it won’t come as any surprise that i see ‘exploration‘ (as well as reflection) as key parts of the methodology that can be well supported by social learning, by the provision of semi structured, semi formal spaces where communities can form and play with the learning. Again, it will be no surprise to say that the very safety and lack of consequence that we associate with playing is a part (but only one part) of what’s available through social learning approaches. They are similar, play a subset of exploration, but not identical: exploration in social learning spaces involves challenge and support and there can be consequences, especially for those with low social capital, those unable to survive or thrive in online communities. Using the wrong tone of voice or approach in social learning spaces can lead to ostracising by the group (although i guess that’s true of play groupings too…?).
I’m a great believer in using the dynamics of play in learning design: learning is about understanding consequence, about understanding reaction to action, about understanding how change occurs and how we can influence it. This may be in the physical world, understanding how things fit together, but equally in our own minds, understanding how people feel, how we form communities and gangs.
If we have a broad viewpoint, if we are willing to learn from anything around us, then we can better master these things. Take graffiti: I’m currently mapping and collecting patterns of distribution here in Amsterdam of certain groups, using the graffiti to map where different informal communities come together. In itself, the activity has no purpose, but it’s challenging me to think about community, to think about communication, to think about formal and informal spaces. And it’s fun: totally without formal purpose. The fact that i’m playing is what makes it fun, but i’m learning nevertheless.
A balance of formal and informal learning is healthy: creating a core of formal structure, but playing around the edges of it, surrounding it with semi formal or totally informal spaces is valuable. That’s why social learning is such an effective approach, such a dynamic methodology, because it ties in with how we naturally form groups around common interests and how we create meaning within those groups by playing with the knowledge.
So, within your formal day, take some time out to play. Think about what communities you are part of (both the physical ones you cohabit with in the office and the virtual ones you interact with online) and think about where you are working and where you are playing. If you can’t spot the play space, maybe it’s time to grab your bucket and spade and head to the beach. A little exploration, a little reflection, a bit of playing in our environment, without consequence, goes a long way to helping us learn.