Liam Miller: Play-dogs: Teaching Children and their parents

Bluey is 6 years old. She has a sister, Bingo, who is 4. Her mum Chilli works full time, so her dad Bandit stays at home, occasionally having to do work in his office. Bandit loves to play and is easy going. His philosophy is all about letting people find their own way. Chilli is super organised; she is ready for anything.

Did I mention they’re all dogs?

This is the setting of the ABC Kids program Bluey. It is my new favourite show. I watch a lot of kids shows with my daughter Ruby, but this is the only one I will go out of my way to see every day. So what makes Bluey a better show than your standard Peppa Pigs or Octonauts? Simply put, it’s the games they play.

Play, for some time now, has been characterised as a tool for learning. This is not a new idea. The Montessori school system boasts play-based learning. Kids entertainment like Play School, Sesame Street, and the current king of Australian kids TV, Giggle and Hoot, are all grounded in the idea that when we play, we learn. Even the dreaded ‘educational game’ is sold on these pretexts. Done correctly, the approach of grounding learning activities in play can be very effective. However, this is more difficult to do than it might seem at first glance.

You see, educational games and playful learning is something of a balancing act. Theoretical work in play and games from theorists like Johan Huizinga, Roger Caillios, Bernard Suits, and James Paul Gee (among many others) frame play and games as voluntary and temporary activities and attitudes. For Huizinga, play creates a temporary ‘other’ space, sometimes referred to as the magic circle, where a unique set of values and actions can exist. Suits, discussing games specifically, gives us this succinct quote saying “…playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” (p.55). Most importantly, all these theorists recognise that games and playful activities are, primarily, fun. They are activities we engage in because we want to, not because we have to.

Any educational tool designed to be ‘playful’, be it a TV show, game, book, or classroom lesson, needs to successfully navigate the tightrope walk between voluntary and necessary, between fun and educational. These are not hard lines, either; often what is necessary can be approached as voluntary, given the right motivations. Without sounding too clichéd, learning actually can be fun.

Practically speaking, however, these elements have a hard time mixing. For example, the term ‘chocolate-covered broccoli’ is often used in educational games. The good-for-you learning, or broccoli, is covered in the delicious and enticing chocolate and kids are supposed to not know the difference. But kids are amazingly discerning, and can often tell when there is broccoli in their chocolate. More importantly, this mindset misrepresents the original idea; it devalues both the chocolate and the broccoli.

So, what makes Blueya success where other shows have failed? It presents broccoli as something that is as delicious as broccoli. To better explain how Blueyhas successfully tapped into play-based learning, I want to share two experiences I’ve had while watching the show.

The first experience focuses on an episode called ‘Bike’, where Bluey is learning to ride her bike without training wheels. She keeps falling off and eventually quits in a huff. She sits down next to her dad and explains that it is not fair, and that she’ll never be able to do it. Bluey and her dad, Bandit, then watch three other kids struggling with various tasks. Bingo is trying to get a drink from a water fountain, but is too short. Muffin is trying to put on a backpack, and Bentley is trying to swing on the monkey bars. They all go through the same frustration as Bluey. All give up in a huff. But, one by one, each child goes back to their activity, frustrated but actively trying to figure it out. Problem solving. Bandit sits of the bench, cheering each kid on. He gets genuinely excited when muffin gets his backpack on, when Bentley reaches for, and gets, the first monkey bar, and when Bingo finally gets a drink. After witnessing the incredible feats of kids doing something they had never done before, Bluey goes back to the bike and tries again.

The second concerns an episode titled ‘Yoga Ball’. In this episode, Bluey and Bingo are playing while their dad, Bandit, does some work in the office. Throughout the day, Bandit plays games with the kids using a yoga ball. They bounce up and down, get thrown onto a bed, and play ‘raiders’ where Bandit throws the yoga ball down the hall and the kids have to jump out of the way Indiana Jones-style. While Bluey and Bingo both enjoy these games, Bingo gets scared or hurt a few times because she is smaller. At one point, Bandit calls off the game when Bingo gets bowled over by the yoga ball. He tells Bingo to “walk it off.”

The end of the episode sees Chilli teaching Bingo to “use her big girl bark” and let her dad know when he is being too rough. “But Dad, we don’t want you to stop playing with us,” says Chilli, translating for Bingo.

I often identify with Bandit. He’s a stay-at-home dad who works in the odd hours in between looking after his kids. I too am sometimes told “I play too rough.” My response in the past was to talk about the risks in playing, and if you aren’t willing to get hurt, maybe you shouldn’t play. I believed at the time that I was instilling resilience in my daughter. But this episode changed my mind. It was pointed out to me by my wife that the episode is about consent. Teaching kids from a young age that it was their fault they got hurt because they agreed to the game was a precursor for far darker things.

I had not heeded my own research. When kids play, they are engaging in a voluntary exploration of the world. They are trying to figure it out. It’s not always obvious what, for example, pretending to be a dinosaur for an entire car ride up the coast might help them understand, but it is doing something. What’s more, how we as parents react and engage with these games has a massive impact. ‘Bike’ highlights the need for kids to be able to engage with the world on their own terms, even when that world becomes unfair. ‘Yoga Ball’, on the other hand, shows how kids, and adults learn to understand the world through games and play. We apply what we learn in the safety of our own worlds in the outside world. Thus, it is imperative that we understand how and why we play.

Actually, thinking about it, I may be getting more out of this show than my daughter.

 

References

Suits, B. (2005). The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. Broadview Press. p.55

 

Short bio:

Dr Liam Miller is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Queensland. His field of research explores the philosophy of play and games, fiction, and belief, as well as the areas of cognitive science, machine intelligence, and human-centred technology. Dr Miller is interested in all areas of pop culture, especially those which involve talking cartoon dogs.