The Primacy of Play in Learning

Originally posted on October 9, 2017 @ 7:10 AM

The Primacy of Play in Learning

safety firstOne of the world experts on Learning is Sir Ken Robinson. His recent video on play (watch it below) provides a nice outline of the essentials in learning through discovery, imagination, creativity and free unconstrained activity/thinking. Although Robinson’s work is primarily targeted at schools his work in general is brilliant for anyone wanting to know the fundamentals of learning, particularly the nature of the unconscious in learning. His book ‘Out of our Minds’ should be compulsory reading for all people with a passion about helping people tackle risk. The discussion of this topic is covered more fully in my recent book: Tackling Risk, A Field Guide to Risk and Learning ( )

Play is about much more than sport or games although these are helpful ways of learning about people, self, community, competition, trust, hope, faith, uncertainty and risk. Play is spontaneous, improvisational, vigorous and unrestrained. Play is studied in great depth by early childhood learning specialists. However, the qualities of free and open decision making, subverting and stepping outside rules and intuitional decision making should be of all interest to people in the risk industry. Unfortunately, people often frame the process of play as ‘unproductive’, it often doesn’t have a measureable outcome. This is because the things one learns in play are of a higher nature in learning and cannot be measured. In risk and safety we tend to value what we can measure rather than value what we can’t measure. The things that matter most in human relationships cannot be measured and any effort to try and measure them kills off their value eg. love, trust, relationship, friendship etc

The key to understanding play is ‘autotelicity’ that is, engaging in activities for their own sake, as an end in itself. Most activities, even our work has value in learning IN the activity as much as the OUTCOME of the activity. It is through play that we learn so much about ourselves, others and relationships. This is often the case when we find work to be ‘fun’. There is a sense of joyfulness inherent in play.

Here are some of the essentials in understanding play:

· A state of mind embedded in an activity

· Intrinsic value in performing in the activity

· A lack of form, coercion and structure in the activity

· A sense of meaning (semiosis) in playing

· Voluntary participation

· No projected or controlled purpose in the activity other than the joy of the activity itself

· Freedom of time

· Diminished consciousness of self

· Improvisation, creativity and adaptability in the activity

· Desire and motivation to participate and continue in the activity without outcome

Ryal (2013 The Philosophy of Play. Routledge. London. P. 25) describe play as ‘an ontological distinctive phenomenon’. This means that there is something special in human ‘being’ in the play. The work ontological comes from the root ‘ontos’ meaning ‘being’.

There is a ‘presence’ or ‘meeting’ with others in the play. What that Martin Buber described as i-thou or Jacques Ellul describes as ‘dialectic’. It is often in play that we learn how to ‘connect’ with others and ourselves. We learn to ‘tune in’ to ourselves and others as a way of understanding and learning how to predict decision making and read people ‘in-situ’.

Play doesn’t conform but is most often about non-conformance, something that risk and safety people ought to know much more about. There is often an element of play in why things sometimes go wrong. In a study of play we learn about disorder, unruliness and passion. Play helps us understand human decision making not as rational/irrational but as a-rational, beyond the rational construct risk and safety imposes in a binary way on human activity. The idea of zero contradicts everything we know about play and learning. It is in the study of play that we can learn so much about risk.

For more study of the nature of play the Australian Educationalist Marc Armitage is very helpful:

Malarkey Playwork

Marc Armitage

Maybe these articles might also be helpful:

Key Elements of Play

Click to access 6-2-article-elements-of-play.pdf

Philosophy of Play

Play from Goodtastic Films on Vimeo.

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