Play

[an excerpt from my thesis writings – currently underway]

The concept of play (and playfulness, etc.) is one of the most important foundations of the research at hand. Although it is widely regarded as necessary to design education, it is a term that inherently resists strict scientific definition. The purpose of this clarification is not to provide an all-encompassing definition of play but rather to identify key characteristics that can later be used for relative evaluation.

To be playful is to seek out difference. Bruner, whose psychological research focuses on education, writes extensively on the topic of discovery. He describes this activity as necessary to the learning process: “Discovery…is in its essence a matter of rearranging or transforming evidence in such a way that one is enabled to go beyond the evidence so reassembled to new insights…Emphasis on discovery, indeed, helps the child to learn the varieties of problem solving, of transforming information for better use, helps him to learn how to go about the very task of learning” (Bruner 82-83, 87). In other words, “one knows they have got somewhere only by getting there” (Teal 299). This act of discovery, in the view of David Summers, is all-encompassing in terms of possibility. “Play not only involves the application to given materials of existing skills, it also involves their extension and development. It thus explores the absolutely possible, that is, what is able to be done given the means at hand…Play is permutational in the sense that it tends to realize all possibilities, and it is liminal in the sense that it seeks the limits of possibilities” (Summers 102, 106). The act of achieving such a feat without prior knowledge of the established limits requires a degree of experimentation; play is naturally both experimental and improvisational. “Play serves learning through experimentation without risk. Play often lacks any immediately obvious aim, other than the pursuit of stimulation…Play’s endlessly variable series of awkward, exaggerated motions seeks out the approximate arena for later development of true competence” (McCullough 223). It is this thorough engagement of the unknown that reveals just why play is so critical to innovation: “In general, we are very inclined as modern people to think of invention in terms of the analysis of problems and the devising of technological solutions…The opposite is perhaps more often the case, even in the modern world; people – individuals and groups – continually push at the boundaries of what is possible” (Summers 106).

Another characteristic of play is its lack of concern for failure. Bruner cites the research of Robert White in talking about competence-oriented learning, saying that it minimizes outside reward-based behavior and leads to what he calls “inner-directedness” (89-91). Elaborating further on this concept, he writes that the organization of information according to one’s own cognitive processes actually makes that information easier to retrieve; i.e., inner-directed discovery conserves memory (Bruner 96). As echoed by McCullough’s writing, Bruner states directly that “much of the problem in leading a child to effective cognitive activity is to free him from the immediate control of environmental rewards and punishments” (Bruner 87). Play, in other words, thrives when risk is not an issue. Much of this external influence is also reflected in the fact that discovery is itself the reward in a playful search (Bruner 88). In discussing the research of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, Bruner notes that a key point in a child’s development is the moment at which he or she is able to internalize information. Once this stage is reached, the child can process success and failure as integral and informative aspects of a developmental process, rather than strictly as reward and punishment (Bruner 90). Failure becomes a cue for a change in direction and ceases to be an admonition.

Finally, play is immersive. In Teal’s essay about complexity, he does not seek to evade the myriad of forces inherent in the design process: rather, he proposes a full-on envelopment of all the issues at hand. In order to do this, Teal proposes a non-linear, “rhizomatic” process: “the rhizome grows by a process Deleuze & Guattari call ‘mapping’, which is an active questioning that opens its way by drawing out the unknown as such. In other words, mapping is dynamic experimentation with emerging forces around an area of concern. Mapping allows a myriad of re-formations that arise through such participation in the conditions” (Teal 299). McCullough argues for a similar method of immersion, discussing the benefits of tools in inhabiting various tasks (61). This approach, Teal argues, is the only way to proceed, since “complexity can never be engaged reductively from without” (299).

Playfulness, then, is the willingness to experiment. The results of a playful search display significant variety, as the goal of a playful search is not “correctness” or “development” but rather mere discovery. Play allows us to move non-linearly through the field of our ideas, fearless to test and discard different possibilities. To be playful is to inhabit the problem- and solution-space simultaneously.

Bruner, Jerome S. On Knowing; Essays for the Left Hand. Cambridge: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1962. Print.

McCullough, Malcolm. Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1996. Print.

Summers, David. “Facture.” Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism. London: Phaidon, 2003. 98-116. Print.

Teal, Randall. “Developing a (Non-linear) Practice of Design Thinking.” International Journal of Art & Design Education 29.3 (2010): 294-302. Art & Architecture Complete. Web. 18 Jan. 2013.

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