Making Education Playful

Posted on: Friday 02 July 2010 10:14am

The changing market for learning content. Gurus of playful learning on what it looks like and what it means in practice.

Moderator: Jocelyn Stevenson, Creative Director, TT Animation


Stephanie Barton, MD, Children’s, Penguin

Jane Burton, Head of Content and Creative Director, Tate Media

John Millner, Executive Producer, 15-19 Learning , BBC Learning

Derek Robertson, National Adviser for Emerging Technologies and Learning, Learning and Teaching Scotland

Amy Sanders, Project Manager, Special Projects, Wellcome Trust

Alice Taylor, Commissioning Editor Education, Channel 4 

It wasn’t exactly planned, but starting a session with an audio clip of a character shouting “Look at that! A massive vagina!” was certainly a way to get the delegates attention! And I’m guessing we probably have yours now too – but you’ll have to keep reading to find out more…

As this panel went on to demonstrate, education doesn’t have to be about passive, didactic experiences for children. Play is intrinsically linked with learning — and crafting immersive experiences for kids using constantly involving technology and media-based tools is a way to inspire play.

Derek Robertson shared perfect examples of this from his work with the Consolarium project — which puts Nintendo DS’ into the hands of schools. Using commercially available games (which, unlike many edutainment games, are often more engaging as well as a natural part of the children’s world), Derek demonstrated how playing fun puzzles games develops strategic thinking, brain games build maths proficiencies and virtual pet games nurture pro-social behaviour. Crucially, playing games puts kids in an engaged state with their learning, creating rather than consuming knowledge.

This basic framework for how play can lead to learning was extended by John Millner. His role involves creating mainly web-based games targeting 15-19 year olds which go beyond the formal curriculum of schools. He also introduced some concepts from the play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith, who described play in terms of rhetoric and ambiguity. Admittedly, when posed with how on earth to apply this play-based approach to the high-stakes, GCSE-focused world of our current education system, he admitted “It’s very hard” — but very valuable.

Dr Amy Sanders described her work with schools, which introduces playful ways of studying science. An example she gave was The Great Plant Hunt: a literal treasure chest of resources and games which classroom teachers could use get kids outside exploring and observing different plants and attempting to grow things. Amy shared how they were even called irresponsible by the New York Times for developing a game called Sneeze — which encouraged kids (in the game) to sneeze on as many people as possible, to see how germs are transmitted to and affect people in different ways.

Jane Burton discussed how changing models of museum education divisions are perhaps shifting their focus from formal learning (like workshops and teacher training) to crafting playful, engaging learning experiences for everybody. They aim to make living archives of stuff with content that is free, for everyone, and forever. In addition to past projects like the Tate Trumps iPhone app — which lets people pit different works of art that they come across while visiting the museum against each other — they’re working on a new project with Aardman Animation called the Tate Movie Project. They invite kids to come up with a plot, jokes, a script, plus drawings of characters and sets for a movie, which will then go on to Aardman to be animated — resulting in their own short film.

Stephanie Barton revealed how publishers are working to catch up, in many respects, with where the rest of media is already at — engaging kids from a wider spectrum, including non-readers. They are agnostic, now, about content: ideas and stories can and should come from anywhere and any medium, because children don’t discriminate. She said they can also continue to take more serious books while mixing them with the fun . They’ll look at anything, so long as the content is fantastic and relevant to children.

Last to present was Alice Taylor who talked about Channel 4’s work building games for 14-19 year olds. With 50% of teens’ interactions with Channel 4 being from gaming as much as watching the telly, games are important. Also important, at least to those of us in the auditorium, was finding out more about the ‘massive vagina mentioned previously. It turns out it’s part of a new game called Privates which aims to stealthily educate teenage boys about sexual health by way of a grotesquely inventive game set in certain parts of the human anatomy where you battle off sexually transmitted diseases. The session perfectly highlighted the gobsmacking range of subject matters that games can bring to life and how playing them can educate on history, sexual health, the social world and beyond.

While time was limited toward the end of this 90-minute session, one intriguing question that came up during the Q&A was about what skills, mindsets and traits the panellists thought kids needed to have in order to be successful. Derek readily answered “Creativity” (explaining how we should help create contexts where kids can create and not just consume), while Amy said kids need to “Learn how to learn — asking questions and exploring inquiries,” to which Alice capped off the session by adding: “Question everything. Don’t just trust the first result on Google.”