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Play as Representational Practice

Speaker Series


Play is crucial for learning and development in part because it provides a space for learners to explore representation, which is key to communication across disciplines (Vygotsky, 1978). We argue it is productive to move beyond viewing representation as part of the play to viewing play as a representational practice (Danish & Phelps, 2011). A practice-oriented view suggests that representations such as graphs or playful skits do not have inherent, universal value or meaning, and instead focuses on how representations are created in social contexts where local norms and activities help to define what they mean for participants in the moment (Danish & Phelps, 2011; Greeno & Hall, 1997; Hall, 1996). For example, within a science classroom, we often see students and teachers expect a drawing of an organism to include accurate body parts (e.g., a bees’ nectar stomach) (Danish & Enyedy, 2007). In the play, however, the local practice might be that all bees are represented as having wings, but can also carry an unrealistic and yet fun bucket for holding nectar. We argue that this perspective allows us to better view play along a spectrum with “free play” at students’ discretion on one end, and teacher-promoted academic play at the other end. This spectrum helps us better understand how some forms of play are treated as academic, how different kinds of play that support academic learning develop, and how they are related to other forms of representational activity within the classroom.