Defining Play: Practical Applications

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Led by the Association of Children’s Museums and the University of Washington’s Museology Graduate Program, the Children’s Museum Research Network (CMRN) formed in 2015 with funding from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services. For the past year, CMRN has contributed an article to each issue of Hand to Hand to disseminate their findings with the field. The following article was shared in the Summer/Fall 2017 issue, “History & Culture Summit.” Stay tuned to the blog for more articles from CMRN! 

By Kari Ross Nelson and Alix Tonsgard

In the previous issue of Hand to Hand, Suzy Letourneau and Nicole Rivera described the Children’s Museum Research Network’s (CMRN) study of how children’s museums conceptualize play and its role in their missions. This study showed that while children’s museums strongly value play as important to their missions and as a mechanism for learning, few defined play or how it leads to learning in a formal way within their institutions. Sharing these findings at InterActivity 2017 in Pasadena, California, sparked discussion about defining play and how a definition might impact our work.

The purpose of this article is to explore the practical application of a clearly-stated and understood definition of play. To this end, we spoke with staff from two children’s museums that have their own definitions of play to see how this plays out on a day-to-day, practical level: Barbara Hahn, vice president of development at Minnesota Children’s Museum (MCM), and Jessica Neuwirth, exhibit developer at Providence Children’s Museum.

Both Minnesota Children’s Museum and Providence Children’s Museum built their definitions from studying the research on play. Importantly, each museums qualifies its definition of play with specific adjectives that distinguish it from other types of play, place it in a position of respect, and convey the importance of play as related to learning. Providence specifies “free play”; MCM calls it “powerful play.”

As Hahn says, “You can ‘play’ soccer or you can ‘play’ a video game—both are very achievement-oriented. Our term, ‘powerful play,’ refers to play that is captivating and fun, active and challenging, and self-directed and open-ended. In action, that means children are having a good time, showing interest, moving and thinking, and exploring freely—choosing what they want to do and how to do it. Crafting this definition was a necessary exercise to get clear on what we’re all about, what we’re proposing, and how it’s valuable to children.”

That clarity works on multiple levels for the museums, both internally and externally. Within the museums, the definitions of play provide filters and focus—criteria against which they can evaluate everything they do. Their definitions of play are front and center in the design of museum experiences. For example, Providence’s “free play” definition describes play as freely-chosen, personally-directed, intrinsically-motivated, and involving active engagement. Neuwirth compares program and exhibit design concepts against these standards throughout the exhibit or program development process. Can a child immediately figure out what an exhibit is about and jump into it without adult intervention and without signage? Is the play personally directed? Is the child actively engaged, or is an educator teaching something while the child sits and passively receives information? Realistically, not every component will meet every criterion for every child, but across the museum, they can all be experienced.

A well-articulated definition of play also helps communicate the institution’s deeply held values to new staff. “When we have interdepartmental meetings about developing new programs, new exhibits, or other integrated projects, the definition is central to talking about what these new initiatives will look like,” says Neuwirth. “This helps to get everyone on the same page.”

Neuwirth points out that with small budgets and limited resources, practitioners need to be able to direct themselves and their museum in the most effective way and use what they have well. “Our definition (of play) deploys our resources well, all in the name of a big idea.”

Because Providence’s definition of play centers the child as director of their own play, self-motivated and active as well, Neuwirth believes that “our exhibits are designed to have multiple entry-points, many ways to proceed with playing, and no set outcome. This allows all users to follow their own interests, work at levels that feel appropriate to them, and define their own outcomes. Our exhibits tend to be more process-oriented, and less about teaching specific content.”

Definitions of play further serve an important role in communicating outside the museums. Not everyone understands or shares the passion for the power of play. MCM describes what goes on in their museum as “Powerful Play.” According to Hahn, the use of the word “powerful” serves to “call attention to play and gives it the respect it deserves and doesn’t always get.” Not only is this an important distinction to communicate to funders and media, but also caregivers. By placing special emphasis on communicating their definition of play with parenting adults, MCM shares tools and language for thinking about the different types and values of play.

Both Hahn and Neuwirth see benefits to an institution-specific definition of play, without feeling that a definition limits what they do. “When we’re designing exhibits or programs, as museum staff, we want to be able to speak from one place,” says Neuwirth, “and that’s what this definition is about. We’re not telling people what they have to believe, we’re saying this is what we do here and what why we do it.”

A field-wide, shared definition of play may not be reasonable, considering the variety of community-specific children’s museums responding to different audiences and needs. Some worry that a definition of play could stifle creativity, which is contrary to the essence of play. In some circles, the word “play” itself implies the trivial, unimportant, or superficial, and is avoided. Nevertheless, the two museums mentioned here demonstrate that having a clear definition of play, on an institutional level, can strengthen a museum’s work and facilitate communication around play to stakeholders. In turn, as more children’s museums establish clear definitions, their work can contribute to the broader, field-wide understanding of play as it relates to learning in all children’s museums.

DuPage Digs Deeper
An agreed-upon definition of play may also carry an impact beyond the field of children’s museums. Two studies completed by CMRN inspired the development of a study at DuPage Children’s Museum called Parental Perceptions of Play and Learning. Focus groups and surveys were used to gain an understanding of parents’ beliefs about play and learning. Of particular interest in this process were the focus group discussions about the tensions and pressures experienced by both adults and children as a result of academic and social stressors—a tension widely experienced by early childhood educators as well. In the current climate of our education system, the association of the word play with “fun” seems to devalue its power to support learning and development.

With work underway on behalf of CMRN as well as within institutions such as Providence Children’s Museum, Minnesota Children’s Museum, and DuPage Children, which are conducting research and positioning themselves as champions for play, there may be potential to stimulate a broader level of conversation and action, both within the children’s museum field and beyond.

Kari Ross Nelson is research and evaluation associate at Thanksgiving Point Institute. Alix Tonsgard is early learning specialist at DuPage Children’s Museum.