[Wk 5 - Reflection] Playpens and Playgrounds


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?

This post is also available in Italiano, Español,日本語, Português.



Sou super a favor da brincadeira em todas as idades! Trabalho com os meus estudantes sempre através de dinâmicas motivadoras e constantemente estamos brincando, nos divertindo, ouvindo música e brincando enquanto aprendemos. Me lembro que no ano passado enquanto realizávamos nossa Oficina de enxertia de alimentos, plantando e cuidando de nosso canteiro de salsinhas, promovíamos um festival de piadas! Enquanto plantávamos as mudas, retirávamos o mato e cuidávamos das plantas, contávamos piadas e nos divertíamos enquanto aprendíamos…


I have used both playpens and playgrounds in my practice. Where the focus was content, when possible, I create a playpen. With a small group of advanced middle school students, I set up series of WebLabs using Google sites where students could choose their target mastery level and work through a variety of games, readings and activities. No student ever chose the same combination, but it was a playpen. The truly passionate students did escape, however, we called it “going down the rabbit hole” (from Alice in Wonderland). Something fired their curiosity and they traveled beyond the original assignment.

When the target outcome is more open - a science fair experiment, a contraption, art piece or paper, I take a more playground approach. “Safety First” then let’s see where you go. At the farm where my children learned to ride horses, there is a horse named Cheyenne. Cheyenne is famous for his mischief making escapes. A social creature (horses like a herd), Cheyenne also releases other horses from their stalls to keep him company. My son wondered if Cheyenne was escaping not to escape, but because he liked to tinker. The stall door opening was just a side effect. So he built Cheyenne a “busy box.” It was a panel with chains, a rolling salt lick, items that could safely be manipulated with the horse’s mouth … and a stall latch! According to the trainer, Cheyenne would sneak up to the devices when he thought no one was watching and then play loudly. The busy box wasn’t a permanent solution, but it gave the stable team time to “Cheyenne proof” the stall latch.

We all aspire to provide an open and discovery centered learning environment. But, playgrounds are more resource intensive than playpens, the most valuable resource is time. Teachers may have just a few short weeks to present and test a set of learning objectives. A traditional hands-on Science Lab exercise comes with a materials list, a concept to explore and a procedure - a playpen. You can flip the model using all the same equipment and provide the students with a playground to discover the concepts with a less specific procedure, but the lab will need more time or some students will travel in an unexpected direction and you may need to scramble to integrate their discoveries with the original objective.

As a parent, I have used both playpen and playground environments. The key is to provide variety and give the the kids freedom improvise. It starts young: from building little kid forts with couch cushions and blankets to commandeering every small table in the house and borrowing small chairs and large plants from Grandmother in order to turn our living room into a 1920s French Cafe for a film project. Creative playgrounds can messy and cluttered, taking over the classroom, house or garage.

Some may think this style of discovery learning is a short cut, a day off for the parent or teacher. That is not true. Playground environments need very engaged adults who love playing.


What “playpen” suggests is the idea of play with limitations and restrictions, whereas “playground” is the idea of play when it is open and encourages social interactions.

I like the playground metaphor, but “playground” won’t necessarily generate learning when it is not well-guided and not restricted at all. These could be the two situations in the playground: 1) I don’t know what to do, and 2) I am having too much fun.

1)I don’t know what to do
Play isn’t easy. Play requires intelligence… It’s finding the balance between “figuring out what these things do” and “actually enjoy doing those things”. When there is too much unknown, people tend to stop… That’s when people talk about learning curves, especially in higher education…

2) I am having too much fun
When it is too much fun, I think people tend to forget what they actually did, just like drinking alcohol… Psychology also suggest that learning isn’t effective when people are too excited…

Strategies for Creating a Sense of Play in Higher Education
(I work in Higher Edu, so I am contextualizing these ideas in Higher Edu…)

  • Low floor. Good video games provide you sense of achievement at the very beginning… So a course design with a sense of play should probably start with something easy and fun, and give relatively high grade to students at the beginning…

  • Allow mistakes… Lots of higher edu assessment don’t really allow mistakes. Consider “drop the lowest” if you have multiple projects for one course, or consider allowing students to submit assignments a few more times to make improvements and get higher marks.

  • Choices of projects. Use some quizzes but not just quizzes… Consider the needs and interests of you students, and have them to figure out a topic/theme they would be interested in within the subject. Give them some projects to do.

  • Adequate support: teach them what is prototype, how to prototype, and ready to answer questions. Do role play.

  • Healthy competition: group the students and give them a house name, like what you see in Harry Porter… Give them some small but important competitions… It’s also a place to see what projects other people are doing.

  • Room for the unknown… So in cognitive psychology, there is this “worked out examples” idea which means you walk students through an example before asking them to do the assignments… Some instructor won’t give students any example until students tried first, which I think make more sense because showing examples first may limit their imagination.

  • Play with Reflection: don’t let them go home without reflecting KFC: keep, fix, change. Document their progress and iterations, even if it is a writing class.

What else?


Below are some ways that I facilitate play in my Makerlab for undergrads. For context: in this course students read and write about the maker movement and walk the talk by designing and developing a project of their choosing. Here are some playful elements:

  • MANY PATHS. I set up the course so that each student can explore making in a way that interests them. For example, I have one student now who is really enthusiastic about entrepreneurship. She has been able to take the work she does in class and participate in startup competitions (twice now this semester!). Then I have other students who are merely exploring an idea as an intellectual exercise and loving every minute of it. And I have another student making a gift for her grandmother who recently moved far away. I think this student is processing her feelings of loss through this project which has been sweet to witness.
  • PROCESS TALK. Not all play is light and easy and we talk about that. And read and write about it. Hard fun. Scott Belsky’s “The Messy Middle,” and Ira Glass’s “The Gap.”
  • DESIGN REVIEWS. Now that students are a few weeks into their projects, they have frequent design reviews in which they present progress and get feedback from their peers. Their peers “play” with ideas about each others work which has helped each student get out of their own head and play with ideas they hadn’t considered
  • SHAKE IT UP. Next Thursday, the Thursday before Thanksgiving break, we will all make paper circuits. Unrelated to any project. Just for fun.
  • CELEBRATE. We are having an end of semester celebration of their work. I’ve found that setting a deadline for a public “show & tell” event is grounding for students, especially when the project is so open. While the deadline is hard, the event itself has flexibility designed into it so that we can acknowledge the different kinds of play students worked with. Some will sell things that they made. Others will treat the celebration more like a share out of their process and prototypes.


Currently ways in which I incorporate play into my practice is by having teachers go through activities were they are tasked with creating some object out of clay, getting some feedback from their peers on the object, asking them to reshape their object into a ball and finally asking them to re design the object based on their peer feedback and their initial prototype. It is amazing to see how adult learners have a really hard time with reshaping their original design back into a ball before allowing them to start re designing. Some of the comments I typically hear are things like: “but I invested in making it”, “I took all this time in making it”, “I love mine”, “I like it just the way it is” among others. It is truly a reflection on how some of the teachers feel about re designing lessons, activities, even experiences that allow for themselves to reflect on play as it was discussed in our videos. It was an interesting practice to set the tone of our teacher development since most of what the teachers get trained and experience asks them to think as new designers of experiences that promote active learning in an STEM integrated class with the tenants of tinkering and project based learning as the frameworks we focus on. The teachers get a perspective of having the “wide-walls” mentality in that we are promoting the students to engage based on their decisions and the feedback from their peers. The challenge is always the balance that needs to exists between what the teachers perspective on what is useful in the classroom and how their effectiveness is measured and instituting novel ideas that promote more students voice and choice. Since our project focuses on Middle school, teachers find challenging offloading some of the control to the students but for the teachers that dare to do it the students have a way of meeting and exceeding the teachers expectations and lesson objectives. The tinkering mindset is one of the tenants of the work we are trying to promote and will continue to promote in our project. Our challenge is to look at the mindset of the teachers as they receive this training and also their effort in using (with their students) some of the tenants that were discussed in the construct of their development during our time together.


As Mitch (Mitchel) rightly pointed out - “Play” - it’s perhaps the most misunderstood “P”.

I want to share one of my personal experiences of designing a workshop around some Creative Process and ideas where children would come and learn how to tinker with a battery cell, some wires, LEDs and sustainable materials which will be affordable for them and their parents to spare for the workshop.

However, even though the children’s museum I worked for was pretty renowned in that area, children were not found signing up, unless their parents saw pictures of a tangible object that they could create and take away from that workshop. So, eventually I ended up tinkering myself at home with some materials and created a final object which was a lantern - and it ended up becoming a workshop to learn how to make a lantern using LEDs :smiley:

I saw around 20 children signing up, and attending the workshop, their parents who were also welcome to the class, observed how instructions are being given so that they could recreate it as many times they wanted after returning home. I realized how tinkering would have been fun, and may be who knows children as they usually do, might have come up with better ideas, but ultimately what happened was they all followed instructions carefully to create a copy of the idea I had generated through tinkering. In this context I would love to say, that parents must trust the word “play” and allow children to play around and play with materials to learn through the process as Mitch has mentioned rather than turning the class once again into one of “Instructional” instead of being “Constructional” ( refer excerpts from Dr. Seymour Papert’s books).

Planning is great but sometimes tinkering and playing around an idea gives rise to new paths. Also, playing helps us interact with people and learn how to work in groups. This would be one of my reflections learnt over time through working with children in workshops and funclubs or in a playgrounds when I look back and see how much I learnt through playing.


You have shared some great ideas. I particularly like the reference to “hard fun” and the idea of Design Reviews. My kids are mid-project and I think this is what they need. Thanks for that reminder!


I like the KFC suggestion! Thanks for sharing ideas within a Higher Ed context. This is where I think a lot of push-back happens against play - actually anywhere beyond 7-8 years old. How can we make sure this is something that is encouraged?


Cool. What age are your students?

I see that you are interested in the topic of inclusion. Might you chime in here: Best ingredients to make a real team


I reflected on my initial rethinking: in the survey I opted for the P of play, believing that the game was a serious matter, not to be underestimated, and that involved all the other P. Later, reviewing the “creative spiral” , I considered that the design already included a fundamental creative component, directed towards the creation of a specific Play, and that therefore could be more important than the Play itself, because previous. Now I return to my first thought, but more consciously: I like the idea of ​​considering Play as an attitude, an approach to be taken in reality. Taking a risk, not going to tilt in front of the unexpected, trying to manage the news, is really a current exercise and that prepares, in general, to life!
In reality I have never been able to make too tight schedules (which I regularly change). In short, I can say that for me planning means having a rough idea, a general framework, but without too many constraints (basically even the playground is often delimited and protected, even if the area is definitely wider than a box) .
And a wide-meshed planning is the one that is put into practice in teaching, when we adapt it every day by evaluating how to propose a certain topic to that particular group, thinking about its characteristics, the limits that could be there as the time available, the spaces or tools we could use …
The words spoken in the video have greatly comforted me: having the courage to undertake an experimentation process despite being more chaotic is, for me, more reassuring than a rigidly linear / predefined path.
Hence the idea, shared with a colleague, to create a space for tinkering even at school (set up as a sort of workshop), thinking of it as a kind of area for the well-being and socialization of people, as well as a creative workshop .
The challenge is also to propose these informal approaches to knowledge in other, usually more formalized situations.


This quote helps me articulate WHY play is important. Play is where students learn to think for themselves, are the most self directed, find ownership of ideas and run with them. I saw this happen the other day when I handed off the planning of our end-of-semester event to my students. They were engaged in divergent thinking in that they were asking interesting questions and generating ideas and riffing on each other’s ideas. but they were also engaged in convergent thinking and making decisions on things that needed to be decided on in order to move forward. It was pretty cool.

I observed myself as a teacher, too. Forcing myself to keep my mouth shut when I thought of advice or guidance I could share. And I had to keep telling myself that it was ok to let them fail. Like, if they mess up on something in planning the event, like how many tables to reserve or something, that they would deal with it when faced with that challenge. All a part of the learning process. For them and for me.


Umm…I think I need to consider myself understanding the terms playpen and playground well. Have to look for the differences between these two terms! Being a technology teacher, I usually plan for and allow students to explore many online interactive activities when I never considered the importances of these two terms. I think each and every school should develop a Maker Spaces where students can be engaged for more playground based task during technology when students can be more actively engaged exploring and experimenting with much creative and innovative ideas.


Thanks for those specific references in your PROCESS TALK section.

That’s one area where I want to further develop in my classroom/playroom.

The video on this page might be one to show students and then discuss.

I haven’t had a chance yet, but I plan to watch this as well: https://youtu.be/nIlcLF1pb7g


In tech-related electives I teach, I have tried a mixture of playpen and playground approaches. For instance, for a quarter-long elective last year, I offered grade 6 students the opportunity to use Code Combat. I find this a very well-designed website because it can be used as a playpen or a playground depending on student or teacher needs. At the start of the quarter, I put students into a playpen, all of them in the same type of coding game environment with all of them programming in Python. But then I immediately start to watch their progress. One student explained to me that he was really focusing on Javascript in personal pursuits, and so I switched him to a Javascript environment. And then as soon as students finish the first module, I can open up more of a playground where they can choose to continue in the competitive mode or switch to a Game Development mode or a Web Development mode.

On the other hand, I often offer robotics electives with Lego EV3. In that context, I leave the playground much more wide open. Sometimes this results in students asking me to provide challenges, which I am happy to do, but often after seeing just a few examples of what can be made with EV3s, students come up with their own ideas. Last year within the same quarter, for instance, a pair of students worked on creating a self-parking car while another group decided that they were going to create a sort of tag game where each robot had to have a sensor that they others would try to tag. They entirely self-organized this and developed the rules of the game together, just as kids on a playground might play tag or even modify it to create freeze tag or monster tag or sardines or some other variety.

I fully agree with with Mitch (and tweeted this today): “Creative thinking grows out of creative tinkering…How can you help kids develop a playful attitude and a playful approach to everything that they do in the world?”

That statement has clarified my thinking about how I should be framing the play/work/learning for my students.


Y totally agree with you Ataur. All schools should have maker spaces / playgrounds to give children the opportunity to develop different sets of skills while experimenting and tinkering where they get the time and tools to engage in their own projects because they feel interested in them.


I love your story about Cheyenne the playful horse and your sons inventive and practical solution! I also agree that time is usually the rate limiter for me when I am setting up activities while I am teaching. Something that I do to save myself time and to create a activities that seem more like playgrounds is to have my students be a part of developing the constraints of the assignment. I also deeply agree with your final statement. It is my enthusiasm more than anything else that affects student engagement.


¡Me encanta su historia sobre Cheyenne, el caballo juguetón y sus hijos, una solución práctica e inventiva!
Una de las mayores dificultades en aula es el tiempo limitado, muy poco para actividades , así que trato de tener todo organizado para cuando lleguen al aula, un tema pero que ellos luego enseñarles puedan ver su aplicación,
Por ejemplo con microbit en varias ocaciones salimos al parque de juego a tomas muestras de tierra al jardín ect.
Lecciones como crear brújula, medir la temperatura de la tierra o efecto giroscopio o la iluminación sensor de luz son clases q se desarrollan afuera para que interactuen con el ambiente, puedan obtener diferentes datos.
Con los peques hemos convertido parque de juego en nuestra zona programación, tapetes cuadrados diferentes figuras ellos pueden hacer recorridos.

Creo que siempre hay que mantener ese entusiasmo ya que eso lo ven los estudiantes y se animan.


Is play (playground meaning) the same as experimentation?