I Play I Learn: Introducing Technological Play Theory

I Play I Learn: Introducing Technological Play Theory

Erik Jon Byker (University of North Carolina at Charlotte, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1067-3.ch016


The purpose of this chapter is to describe and report the development of an original theoretical work which emerged from comparative and international empirical research. The theory is called, “Technological Play Theory.” In sharing about Technological Play Theory, this study has three purposes. First, the study explains how Technological Play Theory emerged in a grounded theory way (Glaser & Strauss, 1968) from research findings about the social construction of technology among elementary school teacher and students in England, Cuba, India, South Korea, and the United States. Second, the study examines the contours of the Technological Play Theory in relationship to empirical findings. Third, the study examines how Technological Play Theory can be empowering and utilized as an “agent of change” in education and schooling.
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Educators almost universally recognize the importance of play in a child’s development. Play, at an early age, is the child’s work and the child learns about the world via play. Yet, something sad and tragic often happens once the child enters the four walls of the lower elementary classroom: play is often neglected or just meant for “recess time.” Theories around play, though, are quite helpful in providing deeper insights into the importance of play and how it can sustain innovation. One early theorist on play, Johan Huizinga, posited that play is an essential part of cultural development. Huizinga (1995) defined play in this way: “We might call play free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary life’ as being not serious, but at the same time play absorbs the player intensely and utterly” (p. 9). The focus here is on the investment in play. Children are intensely engaged in play and so much so that Huizinga (1955) believes that “play proceeds with its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner; play promotes the formation of social groupings” (p. 10).

Two other play theorists, Roger Caillois and Brian Sutton-Smith, build on Huizinga’s early work. Caillois makes a distinction between play and games. He believes while games are a part of play; the rules of play are looser or non-existent. However, for Caillois (2001), the structure of games includes the following six formal qualities: “freedom, separateness in time and space, rules, uncertainty about the outcome, non-productiveness, and make believe” (p. 10). According to Caillois, these qualities help to spur on the culture created by play and games.

Brian Sutton-Smith is considered to be the most important and influential scholar of play (Buckingham, 2013; Caillois, 2001). He understands play as a somewhat ambiguous cultural formation. Yet, still it is a cultural form, and as such, play “cannot be neutrally interpreted so it is impossible to keep ambiguity from creeping into the relationship between how play is perceived and how it is experienced” (Sutton-Smith, 2009, p. 216). The point here is that there is something more than just play happening when people are at play, however this is easier to observe than it is to actually define.

Many researchers in the fields of educational technology and information technology have investigated the nuances of play in relationship to learning with technology (Bertozzi & Smith, 2007; Fleer, 2011; Plowman, McPake, & Stephen, 2010; Stevens, Satwicz, & McCarthy, 2008; Taylor, 2009; Verenikina, & Kervin, 2011). Researchers have found correlations between play and creativity (Mishra, Koehler, & Henriksen, 2011; Mishra, 2012); increased interactivity which is spurred on by digital play (Kline, 2003); and greater motivation among children for problem solving when playing games on the computer (Soute, Markopoulos, & Magielse, 2010). This current study picks up on similar themes, but with a deeper investigation as to how computer technology is socially constructed through play.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Creativity: The artful expression of curiosity.

Curiosity: The free expression of interest and intrigue in something.

Play: The freedom of curiosity and movement within a bounded structure.

Technological Play Theory: The movement of curiosity to creativity while using technological tools.

Possibility: The interactive way that people generate ideas about the purposes for a tool.

Educational Technology: Technology that has the primary purpose of being used by students and teachers.

Technology: Tools that people use for a variety of purposes.

Malleability: The ways that people shape and reshape their uses for tools based on their social context and social interactions with other people.

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