Play-based Project Design: The Organization of Space (Pedagogic Play Spaces)

When I am starting a new consultancy in a school I often hear from the leadership team and teachers that they work with play-based teaching and learning.  Once I do observations in the classrooms and have professional development meetings with the faculty I typically find that there is a dramatic play area and there will often be an outdoor play space and often an indoor play area, but that pretend play is not the anchor for teaching and learning an integrated curricular content.  Play-based project design is an approach that puts pretend play at the center of the teaching and learning process and it is the driver of interdisciplinary project design.   This series discusses play-based project design through the organization of space, time, resources and relationships.  This segment of the series will focus on the organization of space as key to the design of a play-based project.

I will talk about the organization of the three main spaces for a play-based project: 

  1. The preparation space
  2. The joint play space
  3. The discussion and sharing space 

The preparation space is where the scenario and props are made and the roles and scripts of a play plan are formulated.  The creation of the scenario and props is a process of research and design, involving important aspects of design thinking such as  ideation, prototyping and testing.  This space can be thought of as a maker space for tinkering and experimentation.  

Scenarios and props should not be exclusively educator-produced or ready-made, store bought objects.  It is important that many of them are made by children in an ideation process of drawing, building and testing them out by children with the support of educators.  Similarly, any play plan of roles and scripts should be collaboratively decided amongst children and educators.  A play plan is a paper in which children visualize the role they would like to take in imaginary, pretend play and a possible script, such as a problem to solve, that they might enact.  It can be drawn or written, with educators taking on an important position as advisors to orient and guide children, utilizing material and conceptual resources throughout the process.

The joint play space is where the actually scenario is set up and active, engaged, joint play amongst educators and children occurs.  This is the testing out space for prototypes, a kind of simulation of a real world activity that children and educators co-create, almost like the set of a theatrical production.  This joint play space can go through many reiterations as children and educators think about different ways to organize it.  This spatial organization importantly reflects children’s grasp on concepts.  For instance, the pretend play situation is a grocery store, the way that children organize the store shows how they understand the similarities and differences between the products and the specific needs of some products to be refrigerated, frozen or stored in a particular way (as well as the consequences for inadequately storing food).  They might grapple with issues such as sustainability and consider how to organize their grocery store in a more environmentally friendly way.  In this manner, they can innovate upon what exists based on their inquiries about the different types of grocery stores (the awareness of practices of the real world activity - going to the grocery store) and create their own, new versions of what they think a grocery store should be and be able to explain why (these reasons link to the theoretical inquiry and deliberation on theory and practice of the Contemporary Education framework).  

The discussion and sharing space is where sustained inquiry and reflective dialogue, such as guided feedback, happen.  Sustained inquiry is research about the pretend play situation, which often emulates a real world activity, raising children’s awareness of the practices of people in this activity across time and throughout cultures and the concepts and an inquiry into theories that underscore these practices or give reasons why to act in one way and not another.  This is based on the Contemporary Education Framework, which leads to a deliberation of theory and practice through guided feedback to reflect on the meaning of actions in play to empower children to make more informed, intentional and meaningful choices in how they frame and solve problems innovatively.  Sustained inquiry can involve reading and discussing stories, researching a specific topic related to the pretend play situation, doing field research, such as interviewing experts, making observations or conducting surveys, etc.  Guided feedback can include observational data joint play in notes, video or audio, that can be questioned in relation to the different ways that people engage in practices and their meaning rooted in theoretical inquiry.  The purpose of guided inquiry is to move children from what Dewey (1933) calls “routine thought and action” to “reflected thought and action” in how they address problems and find ways to solve them creatively and collaboratively.  

Spaces for each of these three aspects of play-based project design can also vary in how they are organized.  I want to show some possibilities.  

  1. Large space: 3 spaces for preparation, play and reflection can remain in place.
  2. Small space: move these 3 spaces in and out, can use multiple types of furniture depending on what’s available.  This just involves extra time to put up and down daily, but this is another opportunity for children to think about spatial organization that has to do with concept development - such as the categories for spatially organizing a pretend play clothing store.

A few extensions of space organization include using spaces beyond the classrooms walls, such as other spaces around the school that could be single-use spaces, such as a science lab, a theater or an atelier; or multi-use spaces, such as a school commons, a multi-media center or, very importantly, the outdoor spaces available to the school, such as playgrounds, fields and gardens.   Another extension can be beyond the school, such as children’s homes, the neighborhood around the school and the children’s neighborhoods (if not the one where the school is located) and even beyond into the virtual, or digital, spaces of the internet, where children can engage in various types of  sustained inquiry.

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To transform education in order to move humanity forward to face the challenges of the 21st century, increasingly globalized world in a collaborative, creative, critical, connected and caring way.

The founder and primary contributor to Education for Contemporary Times is Sarah O. Weiler, long-time educator with a M.A. in Global Education from the University of Illinois and a M.A. in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Education at the prestigious Institute of Education at the University of London in the UK.
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