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Embodied Cognition and the Vital Importance of Play

Greetings gentle reader, I would like to kick off this blog article with a quote from one of our fearless leaders here at Filament Games, Dan Norton:

“Games-based learning requires that we look at the content and figure out if there are ways to embody that content in the act of play itself.”

What I want to focus on today are primarily the last four words of that quote: “The act of play itself.”

Here in scenic Madison WI, we are in the heat of summer and outdoor activities abound. Folks are pedaling around on bicycles, cheering at or participating in games of baseball and ultimate frisbee, and firing up their old lawnmowers in an attempt to liberate the aroma of summertime.

When I was in my schoolboy youth, summertime meant a new set of adventures to be had. As the son of an enthusiastic elementary school teacher, learning didn’t take a break when the bell rang on the last day of school. Instead, the classroom transformed from a place of words and ideas on paper and chalkboards to a muddy puddle filled with wriggling tadpoles or a garden with a constant supply of weeds to pick and produce to harvest. Both of these “classrooms” provided rich educational content, but why was it that I (like countless other children) looked forward to summertime so much more than the return to school?

The answer I have found is not that summertime held less responsibilities or pressures; in fact oftentimes there was more to do. Rather, the reason I so thoroughly enjoyed summertime is that the learning I did was more often 1) embodied and 2) playful. In other words, I was guided by my environment, my body in it, and the goal at hand, but I was free to explore, discover, experiment, fail, and succeed. In this I didn’t feel as if I was learning per se, I was just playing.

Play as a catalyst for learning is by no means a new idea, in fact it is almost certainly humanity’s most ancient and organic form of education. However, the knowledge and skills needed to navigate the 21st century are vastly different than those of our ancestors. Furthermore, in the 21st century the role of the body itself would, at first look, seem secondary to the mind in navigating the modern world and its many abstractions. “I think, therefore I am”…right?

Not so fast Des-go-cartes.

Researchers today have started to take a much harder look at play and the role of the physical body in cognition and 21st century educational methods. I would like to highlight two scholars whose work deals directly with this field.

Gwen Dewar, PhD. is an anthropologist and writer who founded ParentingScience.com and has contributed to Psychology Today and NPR. She has written extensively about the cognitive benefits of play. For the sake of brevity I will not restate her findings here, but rather allow you to discover them on your own. Her writing is thoughtful, thorough, and expansive.

The second scholar I would like to draw attention to is Lindsay Portnoy, Ph.D. Lindsay is an educational and developmental psychologist working with Killer Snails, an educational games studio based out of New York. Her research focuses more on embodied cognition and the use of emerging technologies such as VR, in education. You can check out more of her writings here.

After digesting the above, as well as diving deeper into the academic foundations of embodied cognition and play (as well as a little lighter discussion of the topic by NPR) it is evident that the potential benefits for educators and students are huge.

If learning comes from (or is at least strengthened by) the interdependence of the mind and physical body, and if the motivation to learn comes from the student’s desire to play rather than from external pressures, a recipe for educational success can be found in playful and embodied learning experiences.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Hey, doesn’t Filament make games that are played on a computer? You can play those sitting down!” This is true. There are many ways to learn playfully, and in our estimation each of those ways can be done well. We’ve even highlighted some of the differences between game-based learning, and something more specific, like gamification.

In terms of physically embodied play and the learning benefits that come with it, we’re most excited about how VR changes learning. This new medium makes the gap between playful abstraction and direct embodiment as narrow as it’s ever been. And rather than aiming to supplant age-old embodied learning opportunities (like gardening), VR learning experiences extend the physical world and afford experimentation and imaginative play along with supplemental information and guidance.

All that said, one of the beautiful things about playful learning is its lack of limitations. Sure, I dirtied my shoes or got pricked by Canadian thistle, but the muddy puddles and garden vegetables of my youth taught me invaluable lessons about amphibians and photosynthesis, and just as we can learn expansively through play, we can view playful learning through an expansive lens.

So where do you see playful learning in your day-to-day life? Did the use of your body inform/enhance that learning? For those interested in further reading about embodied cognition, the short list below is a point of entry into a significant field of study.

Embodied Cognition reading list:

There’s even a conference now: Body of Knowledge

  • “The common theme of many of the speakers was that doing stuff in the world with our bodies (goal directed action) was the source, not the by-product, of cognition.”


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