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PlayThings: understanding play with toys

PlayTrack Bootcamp

2018.05.30 | Anne-Mette Pedersen

Date Tue 23 Oct
Time 09:30 15:30
Location IMC Meeting Room, Jens Chr. Skous Vej 4, Building 1483-312, 8000 Aarhus C
Registration has closed

The PlayThings research bootcamp supplies tools for studying play though the lens of toys. Although some forms of play are imaginary, bodily or interpersonal, play is almost always an interaction with the surrounding material environment. And nowhere is play more clearly visible in our culture, than in children’s and adults’ interactions with toys.

From imaginary transformations of sticks into guns and magic wands, over function and role specific toys like dollhouses and pirate hats. From rough and tumble play facilitated by playground architecture, too elaborate emergent creations and narratives emerging from construction projects with sand, LEGO or MineCraft blocks. Toys enable, inspire and sometimes supply constraints for play but als act as social and physical invitations to join into interactions with players and the world – and for researchers to observe and decode how play unfolds.

This bootcamp collects four exiting international researchers’ methods for studying play: From toys, to digital playthings and the material properties of playground spaces.





Play Tools and Practice – Ethnographical Investigations

In order to understand play situations as interactions between children and play tools, the triangulation between materialities, body and practice must be emphasized. Based on a fieldwork in two schools in Denmark, this talk will address the interplay from the child´s perspective, as a body doing certain practices by taking approaches from phenomenology and practice theory when framing methodological choices made in the fieldwork. Principles from visual ethnography, such as video and production of photos made by the children were used as example of a practical methodology. I introduce aspects of play understood as a dynamic between materiality, body and practice with the goal of inspiring not only for new design approaches for play, but also to underline the importance of understanding play and play materialities within a broader cultural practice.

Helle Marie Skovbjerg is Professor in play at the Design School Kolding. Helle Marie Skovbjerg research is working on conceptualizing play through the “mood perspective” with different play materialities as a source of inspiration for children´s play. Helle Marie Skovbjerg is interested in the interaction across traditional dichotomies as technology/non-technology, and particularly how these practices shift in relation to toys and media.


Toy play through a transactional lens: Participation as interactions between tasks, person, and environment

Participation can be conceptualized as an interaction between the task, the person, and the environment. Changes in any of the these impact participation, either facilitating or inhibiting it. I’ll apply this transactional model to child’s play: describing the task (play), the person (the player), and the environment (playmates, play spaces, and playthings). When these elements interact, a child participates in playing. We’ll consider the characteristics of each of these elements and the benefits of playing. I’ll use a study of my own to illustrate how this model can guide research. We focused on the interaction of the person (toddlers) and the environment (playthings in a play space), measuring how changes in the number of playthings in the play space impacts playing. Specifically, we tested the hypothesis that an environment with fewer toys leads to higher quality of play for toddlers. I’ll talk about how we designed the study, working to isolate the variables and measure the desired outcomes reliably. Each participant (n=36) engaged in supervised, individual free play sessions under two conditions: Four Toy and Sixteen Toy. With fewer toys, participants had fewer incidences of toy play, longer durations of toy play, and played with toys in a greater variety of ways. We’ll discuss the limitations of the study, its interpretation and application, and future research ideas

Dr. Alexia Metz’ background includes occupational therapy (BA, Eastern Michigan University) and neuroscience (PhD, Northwestern University). She now teaches in a clinical doctorate program for occupational therapy at the University of Toledo. Her research and clinical interests, including children and their everyday tasks, children with special needs and their families, sensory processing, and interprofessional collaboration. She uses use both quantitative and qualitative methods in my research. The courses I teach include neuroscience, children’s therapy, and occupational therapy’s role across the lifespan.

From the Wow, Flow and Glow to How: Mastering the Art and Methods of Studying Toy Play

This presentation approaches play and playthings from the following methodological perspectives: The principles of studying play(ful) engagement, hybridity of play materials and the generations of players. 

First, play with things is understood here as interaction enabled both by the affordances and the socially negotiated rules of engagement with its things. Play-tests with preschoolers and photoplaying (photographing toys) with youngsters together with participatory observation, visual documentation and group interviews at ‘play dates’ with adult toy players exemplify the ways in which interaction with toys may be studied.

Second, the matters of play we study today do not limit itself to physicality. Social media platfoms offer ample material to study toy play from the perspectives of serial and shared photoplay and play videos. Moreover, an analysis of these audiovisual traces of play offer insights on how an integral role technology plays in our relationships, engagement and the play knowledge preserved through these interactions with toys.

Third, toy play itself is becoming an inter-generational ‘thing’: For example, interaction between young children and seniors may be facilitated through sharing of play memories through storytelling and by using a designerly intervention based on the activity of co-designing toys.

There is also an Invitation to PlayThe presentation includes a participatory playful exercise for all interested in learning a simple technique for approaching the toy experience by defining its dimensions. By using a physical tool meant for both prototypical design play and conceptual reflections, we put our play knowledge into work in assessing toy experiences from the perspective of their proposed dimensions: physicality, functionality, fictionality and affectivity, and the different stages of toy play: wow, flow, double-wow and glow.

Toy researcher Katriina Heljakka received her doctorate in arts from the Aalto University in 2013. In her doctoral thesis Principles of Adult Play(fulness) in Contemporary Toy Cultures – From Wow to Flow to Glow, Heljakka studied adult’ toy relations and play. She now holds a post-doctoral position at University of Turku (digital culture studies) studies toys and the visual, material, digital and social cultures of play in the Academy of Finland project Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies. Her current research interests include the emerging toyification of contemporary culture, toy design and the hybrid and social dimensions of ludic practices. During her career, Heljakka has worked in the toy industry as a game designer and creative manager responsible for trend-related research and concept creation. In parallel to being an academic, Heljakka has been involved in character creation, authored children’s storybooks and participated in multiple art exhibitions with her toy-related photography and playable art installations both in Finland and the U.S. Contact: katriina.heljakka@utu.fi



Everyday moments of postdigital play: Studying play across virtual and actual toys through microethology

This talk focuses on small-scale, intimate and everyday moments of play. I am particularly interested in the coming together of the human and the technological in the constitution of everyday play: the relationships between human hands and minds with toys, videogame systems and the environments of play.

The methods I use are a mix of theoretical enquiry (theories of play, technoculture, materiality, media) and empirical work in the tradition of ethnography and participant observation.

Together, this becomes ‘microethology’: ‘micro-’ because of the small scales and timeframes of the playful events described; and ‘ethology’ because we are interested in the study of behaviour - technological behaviour and agency as well as the human.

This bootcamp tacl will especially draw on my work on the microethology of LEGO, from studies of children playing across virtual and actual LEGO (videogames and physical toys) to recent work on actual LEGO play as technological and imaginative, and to current developments in hybrid toy-game systems such as LEGO Dimensions. I will address some of the methodological challenges in capturing and interpreting this ‘postdigital’ play.

Seth Giddings is Associate Professor of Digital Culture and Design at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton, UK. His research and teaching address the design, testing and everyday use of playful technologies from popular videogames, participatory media and toys to experimental mobile games and robots. His book Gameworlds: virtual media & children’s everyday play is published by Bloomsbury (2014). He is a co-author of New Media: a critical introduction (Routledge 2009) and the editor of a companion volume The New Media & Technocultures Reader (Routledge 2011). He is currently working on Toy Theory: materiality and imagination in postdigital play.

Workshop, PLAYTrack