Reflections on Exploring Play

Stencil graffiti of children playing and dancing

Being a Lead Educator on Exploring Play was my first experience of being involved in a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). This way of working appealed to me for a number of reasons.

First, I was new to the University of Sheffield and developing the MOOC provided opportunities to work across Faculties and disciplines. Play is naturally a multi-disciplinary field of research and, whilst play scholars may not always agree with different ways of theorising play, I think an area of agreement is that play is endlessly fascinating. Working with many play scholars in the University was enriching and stimulating and took me into areas that I had not previously considered. Looking at play across the lifespan also took me out of my specialism, which is early childhood education, but at the same time threw up many continuities and similarities. Play as disruption, challenge and provocation seems to emerge quite early in life and is then manifest in many different ways (even in adulthood).

A pyramid of wooden letter and number blocks for children

Second, play is universal in that different forms of play are found across different cultures and communities (in animal as well as human experience). This mean a MOOC exploring play was bound to prove interesting across many different countries, which did indeed prove to be the case. The discussions on FutureLearn brought together reminiscences of play in childhood and, how play develops across the lifespan, and the different forms of play (notably digital) that have emerged over time. Individual memories of play became collective as learners compared their experiences across time, and commented on concerns about contemporary play with their own children (at home or in their professional lives). The sections on digital play created some heated debates, but learners did understand more about how traditional and digital are not separate, but can be blended.

A person wears a virtual reality headset, perched at the top of a stack of chairs

Third, the participants’ motivations for engaging in the MOOC ranged from professional development, to parents wanting to know more about play, to those with a passing interest that developed into a deeper fascination. The multi-modal nature of online learning means that people can engage in different ways according to their preferences. We found that even though some of the readings were quite challenging, learners were engaging with them in ways that provoked new ideas and ways of thinking. So whilst the ‘educational’ potential of MOOCs is uppermost, this concept can be stretched according to personal choices, time available and interests. In many ways, doing a MOOC is a bit like playing in that we can never be sure where play leads us in term of longer-term outcomes. However, the opportunity to take play seriously, and to learn in playful ways, clearly has international appeal.

Visit an example course step from Exploring Play, ‘Exploring the V&A Museum of Childhood’s collection’, here.

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About Elizabeth Wood

Elizabeth Wood

Professor Elizabeth Ann Wood is the Chair in Education and Director of Research in the University of Sheffield's School of Education. Elizabeth’s fields of research and teaching include early childhood and primary education, focusing on the following themes: learning, pedagogy and curriculum; play and learning; policy analysis and critique (national and international); equity and diversity; teachers’ beliefs and practices; professionalism and critical perspectives in education.

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