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Playing to Learn

mmanzone's picture

        On my very first venture into Philadelphia with Play in the City to experience the Quiet Volume, I thought that Agatha, Phoenix, Thea and I were wandering aimlessly.  But after reading Mary Flanagan’s writing about “critical play,” I realized that we were, indeed, playing critically.  She references a paper by Brian Sutton-Smith, in which he categorizes play into four sections:  play as learning, play as power, play as fantasy, and play as self.  Though this is not entirely the concept Flanagan uses for her work, I found it incredibly interesting that what I think of as “play” might not be play to everyone and that though many people argue that something is not play if there is a product at the end, play nearly always has a product, albeit not a tangible one.  When we were in Philadelphia we were playing to learn: to learn about the city, about science, and about ourselves.

        While we were not doing anything that would appear as play to passersby, once we reached Philadelphia we began exploring, not just for the sake of exploration, but for the sake of learning.  We walked from place to place, taking in the sites and learning about Philadelphia.  We walked from Logan Circle and the Free Library to the Rodin Sculpture Garden where we took in the amazing sculptures.  We walked around the Parkway and noticed little things that helped us to learn more about the city.  The sculptures, the flags and the people all came together to create a more solid idea of Philadelphia for everyone in the group.

        We continued playing once we wandered into the Academy of Natural Sciences; we were playing to learn about science.  We walked around the exhibits laughing and joking about dinosaurs and poorly worded signs.  We were playing, yes, but we were also learning.  We learned about the creatures who lived before the dinosaurs and that velociraptors are much smaller than we all thought.  When we walked through a hall of dioramas of animals from North America, we played a game that was essentially “I Spy,” though it was more along the lines of “Hey, look, a bluejay!” and “Haha, all the beavers.”  We played while we looked at the animals posed in their natural habitats, but we also learned about their natural habitats, what they could eat and what other creatures they could interact with.  When we finally got to the Glow exhibit, the entire reason we went to the museum, we were playing even more.  We pressed buttons, watched videos, and dressed up as jellyfish and fireflies.  But we also learned the differences between bioluminescence, fluorescence and phosphorescence and why these traits are useful.  Though most people would believe it to be impossible to play in a science museum, when we  opened ourselves up to the possibility of learning and playing at the same time, there was no limit to what we could learn.
        When we finally had a chance to experience the Quiet Volume we had the ability to really reflect on the day and what was going on.  We were still playing critically, but we were playing to learn about ourselves.  I had never really noticed all the noises in libraries or thought about books the way this experience allows you to.  The Quiet Volume taught me how to think of the world around me in a more critical way; every noise and every letter has a meaning that I had been blind to before.


Anne Dalke's picture

"play has a product"

Let’s start with structure.
How do you and your writing partners see this essay being organized?
And how come it just STOPS??

Let’s talk, too, about your sources: who are the "many people” who argue that play has no product? How do you know that your own behavior didn’t “appear as play to passersby”? How exactly did your idea of Philadelphia become “more solid”? (Let’s discuss what might have gotten unsettled, in your sense of the city: what became more fluid and open and complexified?) I’m curious, too, about your reading of Quiet Volume, as “playing to learn about yourselves.” What about learning to read, as a form of play? (See Juneau on this @ Quiet Critical Play.)

Your key idea is that play has a product. In your examples, play is learning. For next week, might you push on that claim? Once it’s goal-oriented, is it really play? (See Claire on this, @ Is All Art Play?) Who says yes/no, and what say you?

nightowl's picture


Marsha talks about Flanagan’s definition Critical Play in her essay and how it relates to her first experience in the city. She gives examples throughout her essay on how her group Played Critically in the city. She says that play almost always has a product, even if it not tangible. In her paper the product of play is knowledge. When wandering around Philly, Marsha and her group gained a concept of center Philly in their heads, they learned something about it while playing. Marsha also played in the science center by joking while learning facts, and during quiet volume when she played with ideas about her surroundings and the concept of words. I agree with Marsha that our experiences in the city were mostly Critical Play.

Grace Zhou's picture


Marcia relates her own experience with the book by Flanagan, showing the changes of idea after reading the “critical play.” She uses a specific definition and analyzes it: “play as learning, play as power, play as fantasy, and play as self.” Then she shows how they play and learn at the same time and what they have learned in the trip- the knowledge and herself. She especially illustrates many details in playing (learning) in the science museum. By applying her own experience and changes, she proves a definition of playing in the book.