[Reflection 5] Playpens and Playgrounds

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In this week’s video and readings, Mitch uses Marina Bers’ metaphors of “playpen” and “playground” to illustrate that “not all types of play are created equal”.

What does play look like in your practice? What are some of the design choices or facilitation strategies that you already use, or you plan to use, to promote a playground-style play?

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What does play look like in your practice?

With my soon-to-be employer, Scratch and Scratch Jr are the platforms of “play.”

With one of my previous employers, with the aim being young adults/non-traditional adult learners, “play” was done via gamification and micro-credentialing platforms. These audiences wanted “play” per se to lead to a competitive advantage (in comparison to young kids, who genuinely want to “play” for the sake of creating, etc.).

What are some of the design choices or facilitation strategies that you already use or plan to use to promote a playground-style play?

Interesting questions. Well, I think the goal is to mirror Mitch’s philosophy about low floors, high ceilings, and wide walls via the four Ps.

Additionally, accessibility, diverse approaches/perspectives with no right or wrong, being mindful of potential impediments and insecurities, etc., I think all play a factor in selecting strategies to promote a playground-style play. I love the tinkering and critical thinking skills resulting from the playing that only suggests, as Mitch said, that the term cannot be reduced to laughter and/or fun. It’s literally a transferrable skill.


In some robotics classes, using Lego Mindstorms, I proposed some challenges among students groups and they love the experience. It is really exciting to know the students didnt want to stop the class even 1 hour past the expected schedulle. Sometimes, there were much more students in the class than offficially registred: some students from other courses just enter the class, because, using their words “they want to have fun too”.
Here, you can watch videos of the classes the students did by themselves: Robo Lego FT-Unicamp - YouTube
Robo Lego FT-Unicamp pt 2 - YouTube
Robo Lego FT-Unicamp pt 3 - YouTube
Robo Lego FT-Unicamp pt 4 - YouTube

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I loved the playground vs playpen metaphor. Very helpful framing. It did make me think a little bit more about how both those examples are artificial constructs by adults. And even with the playground-where kids (and others) are free to wonder, plan, explore, etc., they are doing so with the structures already chosen for them by adults. Without trying to stretch the metaphor too far (too late?), I’m wondering about how to strike the right balance between giving kids support and prompts and not inhibiting their natural raw curousity.


Great to see that Marcos. I have tried something similar using EV3 with my sophomores. It was they very first time they used something like that.


Agreed with Mitch for the illustration

For right now, my teaching style is I mostly give them some affection on how to play while we are working on something by asking to do some challenges and telling them that the progress we create now will have an affection with what we are going to do in the future.

In example, my student is working in creating a game with Gamefroot. So, I Challenge them to make a hard game but still possible to play and complete. They mostly will accept the challenge and create with their own creativity. And after they have finished their game, I give them the conclusion, the game they create right now is the first step for you to be a game programmer.

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Adding to Mitch’s metaphor, we like to use “open” and “closed” activities and materials. Being involved in capacity development of teachers and systems on Play based learning, we see that often play is understood as the opposite of learning. Or, when play is finally seen as a valuable didactic approach, it is equaled to games. Games are great, but often quite closed. For me the concept “a spectrum” of play (the Lego Foundation) is very helpful. The spectrum goes from more direction and instruction by the teacher to less. And from less child’s choice to more. All types of play have value, but only some types will create the opportunity to develop child agency etc. So that is what we try to initiate/get across. However, it also touches on other elements: what about adult agency? What do we expect from education? These concepts are not in all contexts as easy to understand, accept, establish.


What do you think?

I think it is true “not all types of play are created equal”.

What does play look like in your practice?

Some few months ago in my scratch class. I wanted to teach my students how to create / design their own backdrops. So I introduced them to https://www.template.net/ to make their design.

After I guide them through how to use the website. I asked them to design an IV for their birthday. WOW!, it was great as each one selected his own template and made what was in his mind.

Their choices were way different from each other and we all learn new things as each one of them try to figure-out how to achieve his aim with the template he selected. It took more than one class (our plan) before all was able to achieve their aim. After the classes, I shared the art work with their parents.

The parents kept wondering and asking if their child made this?

From this experience, our initial goal was to make a design to use as a scratch project backdrop, but through tinkering we ended up making beautiful, individualize IV for the students birthday.

What are some of the design choices or facilitation strategies that you already use, or you plan to use, to promote a playground-style play?

Some of my students suffer from “free interaction” difficulties. This is one of the reasons their parents prefers our method of in-person teaching in class with students. To the parents this will help their child make new friends even thou it is online classes.

The parents have also suggested we introduce from time to time free to talk sessions during our classes. During this type of sessions students are free to say what is in their mind in any language. The teacher is only to listen and note any issue that may need correcting. All correction are to take place in a playground manner not to hurt the child feeling and not to break his confidence to talk the next time.

Another method (idea) we are playing with is to connect our online students offline. We are at present working in 4 countries : Nigeria, UK, Ireland and Saudi Arabia. Our parent are playing with the idea that these students may come together one day. This is just to create more playground-style play for them.


When I enjoyed scheduled computer science classes in our elementary school (prior to the Covid-19 pandemic), I found that it worked best to propose a theme for a project, with a small number of required elements from the Scratch or ScratchJr palette of options. These would be demonstrated or reviewed during the explanation of the project’s expectations. It seemed effective to put forth a challenge such as, “You will be animating someone or something doing your favorite thing. To do this, you will need a starting event (which one will you choose?)…” I look forward to scheduled classes again next year. The emphasis on enough time resonated with me. That is a goal for me moving forward. This week, my “tinkering” project was learning to accomplish something in MakeCode that two students had accomplished without me (yay!) but that they struggled to reproduce. I was thrilled when I figured it out, but disappointed that when I shared it with them, it felt like the learning had occurred in my head, not in theirs. That was due to a time constraint imposed by the fact that they were creating something to share in a public forum at a certain time of day. They are coming to see me so that we can talk through why and how what we accomplished works and what they could do to make it better.

Here is the MakeCode I created to help the students who could not reproduce their program (not downloaded, of course, because why would we follow all of the instructions?!!). They wanted a program to make their Finch robot calculate something and also display the equation. Fine! My concern was that this was essentially using the robot as a digital printer. I encouraged them to explore, then demonstrated how to how to incorporate random choices by the robot into the calculation. This required variables. Some version of this will be a class project for fifth grade next year when I have scheduled classes again.


Scratch could be what play looks like in my practice.

I am planning to do the low floors, high ceilings, and wide walls to people that currently learning Scratch with me. Each of them has different idea and creativity, so what I am thinking is that giving them a chance to create project with their own idea and creativity. I also give them a challenge and giving the conclusion from creating the project and completing the challenges.

Sorry to jump in last minute. The one thought that came to my mind in reflecting about this playground concept is Oliver Sack’s memoir, Tungsten Memories, about his childhood experience learning chemistry in his own lab.

As a PhD material scientist, who has taught chemistry at MIT and worked with toxic gases, H2S and H2Se, I was so taken by the fact that as a child, Oliver, synthesized H2S, H2Se and H2Te in his own house!!! Since then, I’ve been obsessed with recreating his experience.

Obviously, that is a little too dangerous, but it got me thinking about how I might design a chemistry playground. I want to create a safe place to play with chemistry. The way I learned in the classroom was so limiting, with meticulously planned experiments that left no room for discovery or creativity.

Anyway, if anyone is interested in discussing and developing a possible chemistry playground, please message me. I have some ideas!

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Facilitating activities in the museum’s makerspace, we notice our visitors come from different experiences and background. Some children feel comfortable exploring “Play Ground” while others prefer to start playing in “Play Pen” and gradually move to “Play Ground”. We offer different levels of instructions so everyone can practice their creative thinking skills in the environment which they feel comfortable.

For our Cardboard Challenge activity, a simple prompt like “What can you make with cardboard?” may be enough to get some people started. But we always display some samples on the table to inspire our visitors. We also ask questions to facilitate learning and encourage the participants to walk around the room to see what other people are making.


@steggie, love that someone thought to remix the knife for cutting the cardboard out of the cardboard :package: :heart:

Creo que la metáfora usada es muy didáctica para comprender los alcances del juego como una herramienta metodológica. Si consideramos que los niños y niñas desde sus primeras pasos van experimentando y conociendo su entono a través de su experiencia, compartiendo con otros.

La exploración que hacen los ninos y niñas del jardín infantil se va perdiendo en el sistema escolar que tiende a uniformar los comportamientos restringiendo las posibilidades de crear y los mismos niños y niñas saben que el juego no está en la sala sino que fuera de ella. Creo que una estrategia es incorporar actividades más lúdicas en la sala de clases que permita que las personas se levanten de sus asientos e interactúen con otros, hacerlos explorar su entorno, que busquen elementos relacionados con los contenidos desarrollados en la clase y los puedan llevar a la sala de clases, con actividades off line o actividades on line si el profesor trabaja con Scratch y sus extensiones. Saludos

In my library, I try to incorporate play as often as possible. I use Scratch and Scratch, Jr. regularly and encourage students to create projects that are interesting and engaging to them. If necessary, I will offer suggestions, but I rarely put boundaries on their work. We also use Minecraft and I use the same philosophy in that as well. I may offer feedback or suggestions, but I try to encourage students to build what they want and often say, “It’s YOUR world, build it how you see it!” Additionally, I have a Makerspace and LEGO area in the library and whenever students are creating, I encourage them to use their imagination to make what they see in their minds.

After this week’s activities and readings, I see that in the past, and even some times currently, I may provide play opportunities, but may frame them more as a playpen than a playground. I know that my personal feelings are to provide the playground, but I think school-based restraints such as time, can hinder my playground vibe. I am now more aware of the difference between playpen and playground and hope to spread the playground philosophy to the teachers I collaborate with on a daily basis as well as more effectively in my daily instruction.


In a recent creative coding class, play took the form of a prompt with meaningful constraints.

Students were learning to code with p5.js, a “software sketchbook” that makes it easy to create visual, interactive applications. For their first assignment, I asked my students to write a message in braille. They were just beginning to explore colors and shapes, and they quickly made the connection that their work wasn’t accessible to people who can’t see it.

The playground in this case was simply a space in which to consider how everyone gets to play.

@MsT thank you for sharing this. This looks pretty good.

Can you kindly advise on the type of robot that can run this script with scratch program?

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En mi caso, trabajo universidad virtual, alli el juego es mas de mesa como sopas de letras, concentrese, y cosas asi.

Hello! In fact this robot does not use Scratch, but MakeCode, a Microsoft product that is block-based and obviously heavily influenced by Scratch. The robot is Finch 2.0 from BirdBrainTechnologies. I believe that it is free to look at the simulator to see what the program would do if you had and actual Finch connected. The website to start a new project in MakeCode as though you were using a Finch on a PC is here: