Toward a Playful and Usable Education


To Play is to Learn

Humans are the most playful creatures of the animal kingdom. They watch movies, read novels, view paintings, listen to music, dance, play games, and have an entire industry devoted to art and entertainment. Yet we don’t always fully measure the importance of play in the development and sustainability of our affective, cognitive, and social abilities. Play is one of the necessary elements in building a culture (Huizinga, 1938). The action of playing allows the brain to experiment with new and usually more complex situations than in real life. Thus, we could say, “When we stop playing, we start dying” (Brown & Vaughan, 2009), because we stop adapting our neuron networks to our ever-changing environment.

During infancy and childhood—when the brain is much more malleable than later in life—play is critical for healthy development (see Pellegrini, Dupuis, & Smith, 2007, for a review). Play allows the child to assimilate reality (Piaget & Inhelder, 1969) and remains the leading source of development for preschoolers (Vygotsky, 1967; Duncan & Tarulli, 2003). For example, in the game of peekaboo, the baby learns a certain temporal structure: the mother makes initial contact, then hides, only to later reappear and renew contact, usually accompanied by the baby’s joyful vocalizations. This structure is thought to serve as a foundation for developing more complex social interactions, such as language (Bruner & Sherwood, 1976). Even innocent and naive games like peekaboo can have an unsuspected learning power.

Play is undoubtedly a crucial actor in education, and as such should be encouraged in school at all grade levels. However, what about the playing of video and computer games? Do such games enhance the value of play? We commonly agree that school and the educational system are meant to prepare children for the future. For example, it is important to learn how to read because written language is often used to communicate. Surely, if schools want to educate minds for the future, they should use tools from the present. In a world where technology, computers, and interactive electronic devices are widely used, including at work, it becomes relevant and advisable to use video games as an educational medium. Not only are video games modern and attractive to children; they are focused on the user’s actions, just like any other game, and unlike other media such as most books or videos. They also give immediate feedback on the user’s actions. Further, compared to reading a book or listening to a lecture, learning through one’s actions is often considered a more efficient way to construct knowledge.

The developmental psychologist Jean Piaget is one of the most well-known pioneers of the constructivist theory and new ideas of how children construct knowledge (Piaget, 1937). According to Piaget, knowledge is not a mere reflection of the environment, nor the projection of innate structures onto the reality. Rather, it is built through the actions of an individual in the world (Houde, 2004). The environment has to be shaped and assimilated. Building on Piaget’s research, psychologists have discovered that infants, in fact, begin to understand many aspects of their environment through perception, before they can efficiently act on the world, as in the case of object permanence (Baillargeon, Spelke, & Wasserman, 1985) or addition and subtraction (Wynn, 1992; Hodent, Bryant, & Houde, 2005). It also appears that manipulating their environment helps children think. For example, between 4 and 6 years of age, children show more difficulty solving verbal calculation problems (such as “Paul has 2 marbles. His mother offers him 3 more. How many marbles does Paul now have?”), than problems involving physical referents in which children need to construct an array containing the correct number of elements (Levine, Jordan, & Huttenlocher, 1992). Moreover, it has been established that familiar and meaningful information is easier to retain (see Banikowski & Mehring, 1999), and that the deeper the level of information processing, the better the retention of that information (Craik & Lockhart, 1972; Craik & Tulving, 1975). Students also benefit even when incorrectly answering questions while mastering a new topic (Richland, Kornell, & Kao, 2009). Thus, unsuccessful retrieval attempts, followed by feedback, seem more effective than spending the same amount of time simply studying the correct answer (Kornell, Hays, & Bjork, 2009).

We could then argue that video games, as a highly interactive and meaningful medium for children of all ages, which usually provides immediate and adequate feedback, should be explored as an educational tool. Games also offer a wider array of possibilities. Pretty much everything can be virtualized and allow children to experiment with elements that one cannot manipulate in reality, such as time (Braid is one such puzzle video game created by Jonathan Blow in 2008, in which one manipulates the flow of time to progress in the game), or space (e.g., Portal, developed by Valve Corporation in 2007, in which one creates portals to solve puzzles in a three-dimensional space).

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