Learning as Play


1833 German “Metamorphosis” Metamorphic Picture

Portions of this post contain material from the Learning as Play website.

The Learning as Play project explores the publication of early movable books for children by providing example images, an overview of their history, a database of known artifacts, and several virtual facsimiles of actual items.

A movable book is a literacy toy where reading words and looking at pictures becomes a game. Also called mechanical books, or toy books, most movable books look like regular books (or codexes) but some of the words and images are presented by mechanical devices such as a flap, tab, slot, wheel and so on. The reader becomes a player who, in order to engage with the story, must manipulate the mechanisms to create movement. These may be as simple as the flaps that animate a flap book when they are lifted up to reveal pictures that transform one into another, or as complex as the architectural structures hidden in pop-up books that seem to jump out when the pages are turned. In all cases playfulness, movability, and the ability to make changes or transformations are of the essence.

This genre has an ancient history across cultures. In the West, movable books predate the invention of printing and were used by early thinkers in science and philosophy, such as astronomy and in divination. One of the earliest books was created in the 13th century by the Catalan poet and mystic Ramon Llull of Majorca, who used a revolving disc or volvelle to illustrate his theories.

After the invention of the printing press, books with movable components continued to be made for scholarly purposes for adults. Movable books in the form of religious flap books began to cross over into children’s culture as a form of didactic storytelling in the early modern period, but gained momentum in the 18th century with the explosion of children’s-book publishing. The focus of the Learning as Play site are materials from 1650 to 1890.

The project originated as a concept from Dr. Jacqueline Reid-Walsh. While using materials from Penn State’s Special Collections, she suggested that it would make an interesting collaboration to have someone figure out a way to animate the originals in order to allow them to be manipulated in a virtual environment. An early example of movement was developed by Penn State colleague David Stong through the use of Flash software and photos provided by Dr. Reid-Walsh. Intrigued by the possibilities, the project team wanted to develop other ways to create movement.

As planning took place, the team began to visualize not just a site that was primarily images, both static and moving, but also the gradual evolution of an entire web portal that would make use of the primary investigator’s expertise in describing and assessing these objects in their historical context and stimulate other scholars to share their expertise via commenting – perhaps even lead to the discovery of other unique objects in this category not yet been documented.

The Learning as Play project is a collaboration among multiple departments at Penn State, with image contributions from Princeton University and the British Library. It was partially funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant.


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