Designing for Play Literacy

If we accept the claim that play literacy is important, it begs the question:

How do we teach it?

We tend to believe that if something is important, we have to teach it, but can we really teach people how to play?

Yes and no.

As the ever insightful Bernie DeKoven writes:

“You can’t make people playful. You can’t make a game that will make people playful. But you can invite playfulness. The key word here is “inviting.” The implication is that everything you do when you want people to respond playfully is an invitation. Never a requirement. Never even a request.

As Bernie insists, we can’t really tell people how to play, and we certainly can’t force it. It has to be a voluntary act, or else it simply ceases to be play.  All we can do is to give permission, to show that playing is not only allowed, but encouraged. If we wish for people to play more, to be more playful, we must make meaningful invitations.

The permission to play can be stated explicitly, and this can sometimes be important, but it is rarely enough. Such a statement needs to be supported by a playful atmosphere, that cultivates a sense of respect and safety. Participants must feel comfortable and trust each other before they start opening up and truly playing.

It becomes clear that to teach play literacy, you have to pay special attention to the process, the setting and the atmosphere. It is quite helpful to think of the space as a playground, since you’re essentially creating a space that invites people to play, just like a good playground.

Check this short documentary about an adventure playground:

Diversity of Play

A good playground or playspace invites many different forms of play, but sadly, too many playgrounds are quite confined in the way you can use them (see “The Problem With Playgrounds“).

One way of accomodating for different “play personalities” (see Stuart Browns “8 play personalities“) or play preferences is to invite the players to shape the space. When you’re designing for play, there is always a limit to how much you can control the process and the outcomes without ruining the play experience. Play is unpredictable by nature, and players often decide to move in unexpected directions to ensure it remains fun and exciting.

Don’t fear risk!

Children are highly motivated to play in risky ways, but they are also very good at knowing their own capacities and avoiding risks they are not ready to take, either physically or emotionally” – Peter Gray

You also have to consider the potential risks and dangers of the play space, but don’t think they’re necessarily bad things to be avoided. Play is also about exploring things and situations, where we might get hurt. This runs counter to the widespread logic that play spaces must be as safe as possible, and it might seem controversial to insist on risky play. It is, however, a natural part of play, which makes play more fun and teaches us to navigate and handle potentially dangerous situations.

Five tips

Summing up, here are five suggestions to keep in mind when you’re designing for play and play literacy:

  1. Always consider who will be playing in the space. How old are they? What is their background? How many will be playing at any one time?
  2. Try to accommodate for many different ways of playing. Create a range of invitations and make them open.
  3. Don’t make the space too safe. Allowing kids to play with risk is important!
  4. Include “loose parts”: things that can be moved, used and combined in many different ways.
  5. Be prepared to adjust the space when people start playing in it. Observe and listen to the players, they’ll be the experts in what works and what is fun. Trust the players!