PSYCH: The Value of Serious Play

From: Chris Rasch (
Date: Mon Feb 19 2001 - 14:50:06 MST

Rieber, L. P., Smith, L., & Noah, D.
The value of serious play.
Educational Technology, 38(6), 29-37.

Consider the following two hypothetical situations:

    Two eight-year old children are building a shopping mall with
    Legos on a Saturday afternoon. One is working on the entrance way
    and the other is working on two of the mall stores. As the model
    gets more elaborate, they see that they will soon run out of
    blocks if they wish to build the mall according to their grand
    design. They decide to change their strategy and build instead
    just the entrance way, but with doorways to the stores. They
    decide they can later use some old shoe boxes for the stores. They
    tear apart the stores already built and begin building the mall's
    entrance way collaboratively with renewed vigor. They even go and
    get some small house plants and put them in the middle as "trees."
    They continue working for the rest of the afternoon and into the
    early evening. The mother of one of the children calls to say it's
    time to come home for dinner. A bit aggravated by this
    interruption, the friend agrees to come back tomorrow to help
    finish the model.
    A multimedia design team is busy developing the company's latest
    CD-ROM. The team's two graphic artists, Jean and Pat, have been
    trying to learn a new 3-D graphics application for use on the
    project. While both have been learning the tool separately on
    their own, they decide to work together after lunch one day. Both
    soon discover that the other has learned some very different
    things. Both decide to work on a clown figure that Jean began
    earlier in the week. As they try to learn all of the tricks of the
    package, the clown figure starts to look ridiculous and both can't
    help laughing at the "monster" they have created. However, they
    fail to figure out how to access the animation features of the
    software. Before they know it, it's almost 7:00 p.m. and they
    decide to call it a day. Later that night at home, Pat makes a
    breakthrough on the package and e-mails Jean about it, describing
    some key ideas they should discuss the next day. Although it's
    almost midnight, Pat's phone rings. It's Jean. The e-mail note had
    just arrived and it turns out that Jean had been working on the
    same problem at home as well. Both laugh and look forward to
    seeing what the other has discovered the next day.

What do these two situations have in common? At first glance, very
little. The first deals with children entertaining themselves with a
favorite toy and the second with highly skilled professionals working
on an expensive project for work. However, one soon sees some
important similarities. Both stories show people engaged - engrossed -
in an activity. All are willing to commit great amounts of time and
energy. Indeed, all are unaware of the amount of time transpired, yet
none would rather be doing anything else. All go to extraordinary
lengths to get back to the activity. Despite the obvious intense
efforts, false starts, and frustrations, all seem to be greatly
enjoying themselves, as evidenced by the fact that no one is forcing
them to spend free time on the activities. The children's project
isn't intended to help them on upcoming tests at school, but it would
be a mistake to think they are not learning anything. Likewise the
graphic designers are not thinking about being "tested" on the
graphics package and while probably not willing to share the clown
graphic with their boss, they recognize that this "fun experience" is
essential to learning the 3-D graphics software they need to use on
the project. Both groups talk about their projects as work, yet not
the kind filled with drudgery and tedium, but the kind of work leading
to satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. Of course, there is
another word that describes the two group's efforts - play

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