Reflections on “Playing”

6 December 2012 2,772 views No Comment

Play is a powerful medium for learning, yet comes naturally to children and seems like a pleasant way to pass the time between more “serious” work. It is very appealing to educators to be able to harness this power because of the seemingly effortless way in which children learn important skills while playing, as well as the fact that they generally choose to engage in play rather than needing it to be scheduled for them by adults.

The first problem with utilizing play for education is defining what exactly play is. According to Spodek and Saracho (1998) there are a variety of definitions of play that have been proposed over the years. Experts debate whether play is a form of work, or something completely different. It’s been noted that the same activity can be considered work or play, depending on the context, and most activities fall somewhere in between (Spodek and Saracho, 1998). There are as many theories of play as there are definitions.

Educational play encourages learning, problem solving, and creativity (Sutton-Smith, 1998). Through play, children learn the skills of social interaction and impulse control. However, play has a long history of helping kids learn outside of the school environment (Sutton-Smith, 1998) and incorporating it into school requires separating out the various elements to figure out which ones will lead to learning in school. Unfortunately, researchers have not yet agreed on a theoretical framework for this (Bergen, 1998).

 Children create alternate realities through play (Bretherton, 1998; Porter, 1998) and acquire a sense of mastery over the world around them (Roeper, 1998). This can be literally accomplished through play using certain software programs. For example, over the past few summers I’ve taught a Digital Storytelling camp for middle schoolers where they create their own 2D and 3D worlds on the computer. Campers create characters and write stories for them, which are then animated using animation software.

Campers enjoye having control over how their stories develop, and the direction in which each character can go. Many quiet kids feel empowered watching their stories come alive, and being able to share them with friends and family. Since they work together in pairs, there is a lot of dialogue and compromise about what to do with a specific character or storyline – important social skills, especially for pre-teens. The programs we use for animation, Scratch and Alice, were designed to teach children programming concepts through storytelling. The programs are so much fun to use that students, at least my students, do not even realize that they are learning anything in order to be able to create their stories.

As in any class, I have a variety of levels of technical skills among the students. Learning the programs is easier for some than for others, but all are motivated to learn at their own levels and push themselves to solve problems that they encounter, to achieve the end goal of creating their animations. Some students create more sophisticated stories because they are able to take advantage of more features within the program, and some even discover advanced features on their own that I do not demonstrate in class. Although none of the students are particularly gifted or come in with any programming experience, they all feel comfortable exploring the limits of the programs in order to achieve their own personal goals.


Bergen, D. (1998). Readings from…Play as a Medium for Learning and Development. Association for

    Childhood Education International.

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