Learning Design - Playgrounds, Affordances & Variability


In an effort to convey our ideas, and taking the lead from others we are learning from at the moment, there may be value in working/thinking out loud. Hence the contents of this and future posts…

One of our key underpinning theories is Ecological Dynamics. Within this theory is the concept of “affordances” — the opportunities/invitations for action on offer in a particular environment. Affordances are relative to the action capabilities of a person so certain objects, surfaces, spaces etc afford different actions for different people, ie a medicine ball affords throwing for an adult but probably not for a young child. A key underpinning of affordances is perception-action coupling. Affordances are also closely associated with “embodied” decision making I covered in a previous post.

In our mind, a coach plays the role of a learning designer (or even a “learning dynamicist”- perhaps need to follow up on that thought later!), creating learning spaces. A key part of this design is the incorporation of affordances for players to explore. This is not unique to sport of course - tremendous thought goes into designing spaces for children to engage in movement learning, including playgrounds like the one pictured at the top of this post. I took this picture in my local park. The children in the background playing football are my son and some of his school friends. I thought this provided a nice contrast of 2 different learning spaces with varying affordances - the playground affording equipment to swing or rock on, and behind this the grassed open space, ball, goals and “players” creating many affordances such as striking/controlling a ball and evading other players. (You may also want to check out our posts on a visit to the park and Boston park games).

Through affordances, the playground and football game offer choice, challenge and variability to participants. In research by Prieske et al (2015) looking at the attraction of challenging affordances in a playscape, they found that children were not necessarily drawn to the most challenging affordances, but they did explore and engage in the wide variety of affordances on offer. In other words they sought out variability. Prieske et al mention previous work by Nebelong (2004) and his assertions about the importance of designing opportunities for variable action…

Nebelong (2004), a landscape architect who argued against common standardized playgrounds, gave a similar advice, based on related grounds.
“I am convinced that ‘risk-free’, standardized playgrounds are dangerous — just in another way from those with obvious risks. When the distance between all the rungs in a climbing net or a ladder is exactly the same, the child has no need to concentrate on where he puts his feet. Standardization is dangerous because play becomes simplified and the child does not have to worry about his movements. This does not prepare him for all the knobby and asymmetrical forms he is likely to be confronted with outside the playground and throughout life. (p. 30).”
Hence, the above considerations suggest that in designing playgrounds we need to create variation. By doing so, we would take into account the differences in action capabilities among children and also follow theories about how these capabilities can improve.

I’m sure you can see the applicability to learning design in a sporting context. By building in a range of affordances and enabling young players to explore, we will see the variability so crucial to learning. Equally, we will help players to become “perceptually attuned” to the dynamics of a sporting arena. Just as the child has no need to concentrate (be perceptually tuned in) when play equipment becomes standardized and repetitive, neither does the young player in a learning space that contains repetitive drilling. When they can execute the same pass to the same position every time, without having to worry about opposing players intercepting the ball, their perceptual sensitivity suffers. Equally, a well-designed learning space will demand heightened perceptual sensitivity and in the process help players to (often implicitly) become attuned to the key information in the environment that can be used to guide actions - “attunement to affordances”.

Whilst the above may be common sense for some coaches and others involved with learning design, it is clearly not universal. In fact a recent conversation about coaching in a category one English football academy highlighted the significant amount of practice time spent on “technical grooving”, in essence the “dangerous standardization” of a learning space mentioned by Nebelong. Whilst grooving and standardization maybe suitable for exploiting a complicated system such as a machine, they are not appropriate if we want to tap into the adaptive capacity of a human - a complex system. This is a common theme and highlights the lack of understanding of the concepts mentioned above, a lack of theory of the learner and the learning process, but on a positive note, a massive opportunity to do learning design/spaces so much better.

My thinking about how much more creative learning design could be in football was further fuelled over the weekend when visiting this new trampoline park pictured below.

final touches being applied to a well-designed learning space

Whilst absent in this photo, imagine over 100 children of various ages engaged in exploring the range of trampolines, foam pits, balance beams, dodge ball cages etc. These affordances have been skillfully built into a space that just a few weeks ago was an empty industrial warehouse. Observing the children in action affirmed their tendency to seek out variability — rarely engaging with one area/piece of equipment for long or in the same manner. Adult supervisors were on hand to guide and intervene if necessary, but the key work of the adults had already been done “behind the scenes”. As Al has mentioned previously, this in no way lessens their role…

What I saw reinforced what can be achieved with quality learning design - engagement, aspiration (challenge) & connection (socially). This is going to be a key part of our approach in shaping an offering for people and organisations who are striving to be their best and/or helping others to do so.

References

Nebelong, H. (2004). Nature’s playground. Green places. May, 28–31

Prieske, B.; Withagen, R.; Smith, J.; et al. (2015). Affordances in a simple playscape: Are children attracted to challenging affordances?
Source: Journal of Environmental Psychology Volume: 41 Pages: 101–111

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