Digital Play: Mathematical Simulations Transforming Curiosity into Play

Digital Play: Mathematical Simulations Transforming Curiosity into Play

Julie K. McLeod (Good Shepherd Episcopal School, Dallas, TX, USA), Mary Jo Dondlinger (Texas A&M University Commerce, Commerce, TX, USA), Sheri Vasinda (Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK, USA) and Leslie Haas (Dallas Christian College, Dallas, TX, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/jgcms.2013040103
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Abstract

This article reports on Digital Play, one of three prominent themes identified in a qualitative case study of sixth grade students who used mathematical simulations in their proportional thinking unit of study. The study was designed to investigate learner curiosity but found play as a prominent theme. Five different virtual manipulatives or simulations were used as part of the study. The Digital Play theme is then further examined, identifying aspects of the virtual manipulatives that led to play and ludic activities. Students’ interview responses revealed all three of Salen and Zimmerman (2004) categories of play, which also align with several patterns of play identified by the National Institute for Play (2009), during their use of the simulations. Students also described the nature of their play with the simulations which was traced to Winnicott’s (2007) potential space. Finally, the implication of the possibility for transformative play is discussed.
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Introduction

As the dominant pursuit of childhood and adolescence, play encompasses social, emotional, and intellectual development (Van Hoorn, Nourot, Scales, & Alward, 2011). The substance of play is derived from the social and emotional worlds of players while providing an opportunity for developing an understanding of self and others (Van Hoorn, et. al., 2011). Recognizing play and its substance as an essential means of development can allow educators to both leverage and promote learning. Because play in the 21st century often includes technology-based games, activities, and discovery experiences (Marsh, 2010), simulations offer opportunities for extended play through technology (Van Hoorn et al., 2011).

Digital simulations can be leveraged to promote extended play that develops logical-mathematical thinking. This type of thinking includes understandings created through cause and effect relationships explored during physical activities, development of schemes for interpreting surroundings, and symbolic transformations intrinsic to role playing (Van Hoorn et al., 2011). Because simulations allow for ideas and concepts to be “played out” through various scenarios and perspectives, critical thinking and problem solving are developed through this play.

In order to understand the impact of a technology-rich learning environment on learner curiosity in a sixth grade mathematics classroom, researchers conducted a qualitative case study that examined students’ curiosity while deepening their conceptual knowledge building using five different virtual manipulatives or simulations (McLeod, Vasinda, & Dondlinger, 2012; McLeod, 2011). Although the study was part of a more comprehensive project focused on examining whether, how, and why students demonstrated curiosity with technology-integrated learning, analysis of data from student interviews yielded several codes across all four categories that tied directly to play in general and ludic activities specifically. Indeed, one of three prominent themes identified through this analysis was Digital Play (McLeod, 2011). This article further examines the concept of play and presents the results of data analysis that supported the Digital Play theme, first defining simulations and theories of play and then examining aspects of the virtual manipulatives that led to play and ludic activities.

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