Metaplay 2—on the use of drama as play

June 26, 2009

Last post I talked about metaplay as an important type of language output that is particularly difficult to program into AAC due to its unpredictability and dynamicism.

The imaginary reality that children are engaging in is referred to as a play frame. The play frame can be something established and obvious (I’ll call these “off-the-rack frames”) or it can be something improvised in the moment. If the children are playing House, that’s mostly an off-the-rack frame that we can mostly prepare for. If the House gets overrun by zombies (or worse, as my 7-year-old cousin decided, zombies piloting robot armor suits) our off-the-rack AAC programming for the House frame is going to be inadequate.

The end goal here is to make the AAC system programmed by the players as part of the play. Play frames are co-constructed, so talk about the play frames needs to be co-constructed as well.The action in the play itself programs the device.

I'm the store worker, okay? Pretend you're buying something from me.

I'm the store worker, okay? Pretend you're buying something from me.

And, no, I haven’t the foggiest idea how to implement that in the Real World™. I’ve talked to the foremost experts in the field of AAC and none of them know how either (if they think about it at all). It certainly isn’t possible with the hardware and software available today, nor do current attitudes regarding AAC held by professionals doing the teaching lend themselves to implementing something this radical.

I do have some ideas for how we can structure an off-the-rack schematic setup in an existing AAC system. Here is something that you can use today to make a schematic theme for play within a specific play frame.

First, let’s talk about what it is that we are doing exactly. The type of pretend play that I am talking about emerges around age 4, becomes rather sophisticated between 5 and 6, and continues to evolve until age 10 or so (at which point games with rules become more prominent than imaginary play). What kids are doing in this play is jointly constructing a narrative (see Bruner, 1991 in the link for why this is critically important to cognitive development).


Narratives are like stories, and stories are drama. In fact, imaginary play shares a lot of features with improvisational theater (Sawyer, 2003). Fortunately for my PhD research, there has been a lot of work done by people much smarter than me regarding Drama and its connection to how we structure our thinking (see the work of philosopher and rhetorician Kenneth Burke, not to mention Jerome Bruner).

The main components of Drama (and I’ll switch to calling it play frame from now on) according to Kenneth Burke are:

  1. Agent — a person
  2. Action — something one does
  3. Scene — time and place
  4. Goal — a purpose of an action
  5. Agency — tools and tactics used to accomplish a Goal
Dramatistic Pentad

Dramatistic Pentad

You might recognize this as Who-What-When/Where-Why-How.

While it isn’t a cookie-cutter, it is a basic framework for brainstorming and organizing the vocabulary and uterances in an AAC system if we are creating a schematically organized page or set of pages.

In a future post (hopefully, in the next few days, not three weeks from now) I’ll walk through the use of the Pentad to make an AAC language set for a play frame.

I’ll also talk about how the use of a basic improv theater story-arc structure can help us in intervention and modeling of the use of the system in dramatic play.

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