Play and learning in the digital age

My chapter in a new book published by OECD in their series on Digital childhood examines the cultural history and discursive construction of play and learning, drawing attention to the way that both human activities have been differentiated but are now becoming ever more blurred. This is analysed in the context of changes brought about both by the technical affordances of digital technologies and the political economy of digital culture which has focused on turning learning into a commodity purchased and used in the home as much as in the school. The existential open-ended nature of play itself has been significantly influenced by video gaming and the turn to playfulness in public culture more generally. The chapter argues that it is important not to subordinate play as an instrumental developmental function of learning and that learning itself should not be conflated with the outcomes of the formal education system.

I conclude by arguing that learning is not the binary opposite of play and that making learning not serious, or strengthening its intrinsically playful nature, has helped the commodification of learning and thus its marketability into the home and consequential datafication of learners, teachers and families. I suggest that rather than simply being a natural process of conceptual progress, the specific cultural values that now pertain to both play and learning have been part of the political economy of digital culture. It serves a particular set of interests and therefore the chapter will end with a series of questions challenging the ways that current definitions of play and learning could or should be addressed by policy, families, young people and schools.

  1. What is lost and gained, if:
    1. play is interpreted as being in the service of learning?
    2. what schooling counts as learning is not constantly challenged?
  2. Whose interests might be served by:
    1. conflating play with learning?
    2. broadening the reach and range of digital play as a proportion of all play?
  3. How can we evaluate:
    1. the relationship between the quality of the playified learning experience and school outcomes?
    2. what counts as “good” play or “better” learning?
  4. Given that the option of de-digitalising social life is not available, what can or should other institutions (schools, families, childcare, early childhood centres, kindergarten, and museums and galleries) do to ensure that the global trend to playify learning or learnify play remains varied and diverse?
  5. How important is understanding the changing relationship between play and learning to the future purposes of education systems?