Learn to play more, play to learn more (and may your learning be serendipitous)

On my other secret blog I barely mentioned attending a talk back in November on Planned Serendipity, but in terms of impact the session has turned out to be a bit of a “creeper.” At the time it reminded me how big a role serendipity, albeit usually of the unplanned variety, has played in my own life. Now, the more I notice it, well.., the more I notice it happening all the time. This past week—still reeling perhaps from the realization I’m descended from webmasters and plugin monkeys, even as I plan how to design a “Web 2.0” project involving things computer scientists inevitably do much better—three different sources contributed three new resources to the rebuilding of my self esteem by reinforcing my complete belief in the importance of play to learning*.

The first was a scholarly paper entitled Unlearning to Teach, (McWilliam, 2007, which to my great misfortune I overlooked when writing this paper), the second a column at the wonderful KQED Mind/Shift blog where it’s entitled Balancing Math Skills and Play (Yang Su, 2010), and the third was a presentation by Sir Ken Robinson on YouTube (RSA Animate – – Changing Education Paradigms), which a friend posted as a comment to my adaptation of part of the McWilliam article as my Facebook status. I argue all three support my informal, play-based approach to discovering the inner workings of the hardware and software that build and shape this complex platform that is so much more than hardware and software, this medium that defies versioning. When designing learning activities we must learn to play more.

According to Tim O’Reilly (2005), “The concept of “Web 2.0″ began with a conference brainstorming session between O’Reilly and MediaLive International. …In our initial brainstorming, we formulated our sense of Web 2.0 by example.” He asks us to “visualize Web 2.0…”

…as a set of principles and practices that tie together a veritable solar system of sites that demonstrate some or all of those principles, at a varying distance from that core.
(heading 1. The Web As Platform)

and offers Figure 1:

Diagram of supposed Web 2.0 concepts and their connections. It resembles molecular drawings or trinker toys in some ways.
Web 2.0 “meme map” (O’Reilly, 2005)

You can see planet Play at about 5:00, or x=1, y=-1 if you prefer Cartesian, just within the orbit of Rich User Experience (my emphasis, and I’ll tell you why in a bit).

So—having found in this sudden, seemingly synchronous, serendipitous reappearance of play and informality as topics both vindication and healing—I find that I’m also starting to think of my project as an exercise in planned serendipity, the design of an experience. My task is to make the experience rich, and if doing so stretches my own comfort zones then so much the better!

The figure above reminds me of another one I featured in a post on my old blog:

Another molecule-like image meant to show "the integration of four core elements that form any activity that can be experienced: balancing the learning of content and supporting participation; and, by the same token, balancing interaction within boundary conditions and engagement within a context through which the learning experience takes on meaning."

What Elements Go Into Learning Activities? (Silvers, 2010)

Whatever the subject, lesson or learning project it seems reasonable to expect more engagement if we approach the activity as an opportunity to engage in meaningful play (see e.g., Barab, Warren & Ingram-Goble (2006), referenced in Silvers, 2011). The boundaries and conditions are like the sandbox, the context might be a birthday party, after school, back yard or vacation getaway, but we always hope (and with experience take ever greater pains to make certain) our toys and tools (content) are exciting enough to attract participation, and that our sandbox’ll be visited by other fun kids, who may even bring some great toys and stories of their own.

And sure, there’ll always be bigger kids around, with better toys and all the bragging rights that go with that. But when it comes to learning, start by making your sandbox (might it look like a classroom? …an elearning module? …a web site?) a nice safe place to play—in good condition within clear, relevant boundaries. Stock it with toys and tools in variety and number appropriate to your context and to the type of participants and participation you want to see take place. Plan for serendipity by inviting the sort of mix and match of local and outside experts you think will have a combustible chemistry, then by opening the doors to any and all who say they are curious.

Further reading/viewing:

Barab, Sasha, Scott Warren, and Adam Ingram-Goble (2011). Academic Play Spaces: Designing Games for Education. Indiana University, 23 Mar. 2006. Web. 11 Feb. 2011. <http://inkido.indiana.edu/upload/aps7.doc>.

Silvers, Aaron E., Fundamental Design of Learning Activities, Web Accessed 2011-10-10

McWilliam (2007) Unlearning How to Teach html doc, paper presented at Creativity or Conformity? Building Cultures of Creativity in Higher Education, a conference organised by the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff in collaboration with the Higher Education Academy, Cardiff 2007-01-08 to 01-10

Robinson (2010) Changing Education Paradigms adapted as web presentation by RSA.org, YouTube. Accessed 2011-01-06.

Yang Su (2010) Balancing Math Skills and Play . Blog post KQED Mind/Shift, accessed 2012-01-05

*While writing this about the play articles I came across I was also reading IDEO‘s Design Thinking Toolkit for Educators designthinkingforeducators.com.

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