Designing an object of play


Daniel Robinson

James Madison University

Alan Levinovitz

James Madison University


Robinson, D., & Levinovitz, A. (2015). Designing an object of play. James Madison University.


Small groups of students combine theoretical knowledge of play and practical skills such as 3d printing in the making of a toy or game. The object of play is then presented in a sales pitch format, which requires students to articulate the considerations that went into their design and manufacture process. The presentation occurs as part of an exhibit tailored to the general public, during which students speak directly to visitors and get feedback on their work. While the assignment is meant specifically for a class on play, the general structure could be used by any instructor who seeks to have students transform theoretical knowledge into a material product.

Background and Context

Designing an object of play is the final project for a co-taught, interdisciplinary course on play in theory and practice. The course is small-10-15 students-and occurs twice per week for two hours each meeting. This extended time is meant to allow supervised, in-class work on smaller projects and the larger final project. For the first seven weeks of the course, students read various texts on play philosophy, sociology, history and then collaborate on small projects meant to develop practical skills. These smaller projects range from designing a top to designing a board game to making a doll, and the format of the class allows for real-time guidance as the students work.

The students tend to be diverse, with backgrounds in art, engineering, and the humanities. This means that some will have more experience with the difficult theoretical texts assigned throughout the course, while others have more facility with the design process and practical skills necessary for creating objects of play. By working together in small groups throughout the semester, the students share their own unique skill sets with each other, supplementing the instructors’ expertise.

In creating the course and thinking through the final project, our primary concerns in terms of developing proficiencies were integrative knowledge and applied and collaborative learning. There are very few interdisciplinary, co-taught courses at universities, so it is essential to demonstrate that interdisciplinary approaches, especially those that fuse theory and practice, can produce learning environments and experiences uniquely conducive to the development of desirable proficiencies. Faced with the exigencies of jobs in which theory must become practice, often while working with colleagues, assignment like this one help prepare students from diverse backgrounds for the kinds of creatively challenging tasks they are sure to encounter after leaving college.

Alignment and Scaffolding

Designing the object of play fits at the end of the course, after students have become familiar with various theories of play through their application in small projects. These projects have taught basic collaborative skills and basic practical skills (such as using a drill) that are necessary for the successful execution of the final project. The final project is meant as a bridge between coursework and professional design–an intermediate step that connects students to the general public, and gets them thinking about their academic work in the context of an audience that might want to use it or purchase it.


The assignment is quite challenging, and even with adequate scaffolding and milestones requires continued feedback and guidance. It is also important to set out beforehand the evaluation criteria, especially since it is a collaborative effort and students often end up taking on more work than others. However, once completed, the projects are uniformly objects of great pride for their creators, and we have received positive feedback on the unique qualities of this interdisciplinary learning experience and co-taught course.

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