We are probably all aware of the role humour can play in facilitating students’ learning and engagement with their studies, and we saw a great example of this from Scott Chadwick earlier this year, but what do we know about the value of play? When we think of play in the academy, we might think of simulations, role-play, outcomes-based gaming or other serious playful activity, but what about social play and play for play’s sake?

A playful university

In our recent First and Further Year Experience (FFYE) Forum, facilitated by Dr Kathy Egea (FFYE Coordinator) and Dr Alisa Percy (IML), Dr Maarten Koeners, a Science academic from the University of Exeter, gave us an experience of play to extend our understanding of its potential and introduce us to a range of activities we can use with our students. Maarten cites as his inspiration, Dr Stuart Brown, MD, who brings an interdisciplinary research perspective to explore how play ‘shapes the brain, opens the imagination and invigorates the soul’. Likewise, Maarten has brought his research in Physiology together with his passion for play (Koeners & Francis, 2020) to demonstrate the value of play’s contribution to students’ social intelligence, cognitive flexibility and intellect, and physical and mental resilience in the university setting.

Playful universities are compassionate and creative universities because they address the fear of failing, the avoidance of risk, and the more damaging aspects of performativity and goal-oriented behaviour. The playful university incorporates a radically different approach to learning (beginning with high impact micro-practices), that instil in students a sense of belonging and connection, as well the confidence, agency, and openness to engage collaboratively in the authentic co-creation of knowledge. In Maartens’ words, this involves activities that are highly social and interactive, engage enthusiasm, promote ‘in-the-now’ behaviour, and increase joy with respect for oneself and one’s surroundings.

Experiences of play

As a warm up, participants were engaged in a pre-forum scavenger hunt on a MS Teams site set up specifically for this purpose, and each day in the lead up to the forum, we were invited to share something about ourselves: a favourite book, an image of ourselves as a superhero, something random we found in a drawer or down the back of a couch, a sound from outside our home, the best smelling thing in our house, an example of what play means to us, a secret rainbow collated from objects in our house. This activity only took a couple of minutes each day, but these simple activities began to build a strong sense of a playful community and we learnt a lot about each other’s creativity and interests.

Screen shot of scavenger hunt; column of images including plants, illustrations and objects.

As the Forum began, we were invited to engage in a Mentimeter Word Cloud activity where we submitted two or more activities that that represented things we do at work that we considered playful. Among the many words submitted, coffee, dance, brainstorming and chatting won this round. And this is not surprising given that it is often during these activities that the most serendipitous and creative ideas emerge. This playful activity also helped start a conversation about how play and playfulness means something different to everyone, and how we can use this with our students to begin conversations about diversity and respecting difference

Screen shot of word cloud image.

The second activity was called the Marshmallow Challenge, where we worked in break out groups in Zoom to construct a tower out of spaghetti, a marshmallow and sticky tape, and then post an image of our efforts to Google Jamboard. The purpose of this playful activity was to foster design thinking and collaboration among group members.

Screenshot of Google Jamboard

And the third key activity was the use of Thunks. Thunks are non-controversial questions about everyday things that don’t have a right or wrong answer and invite alternative perspectives and discussion that reveal our internal assumptions and mental models; for example, ‘If you paint over a window, is it still a window?’ This kind of activity is a perfect way to provide low-stakes opportunities for students to learn to listen, acknowledge and respect diverse points of view.

Screen shot of Zoom / mentimeter activity - short text answers in rectangles.

Maarten interspersed these activities with small playful breaks; for example, when we had been sitting too long, the slide ‘Maarten Shows’ (like Simon Says) was used to invite participants to touch their toes, or stand up and stretch, or lie down on their back. We also took a 5 minute scavenger hunt break where we found an object in our home that we thought the fewest people would have, and come prepared to share that after the break.

I found that through engaging in these activities I experienced a palpable shift in the interaction and communication in the group, building a sense of trust and openness. I began to perceive people who I had not met before as rounded individuals as I caught glimpses of their experiences and insights into their perspectives. I have been contemplating what aspects of the teaching and learning experience we are missing out on most in this time of suddenly online higher education. The experience led by Dr Maarten Koeners was of course conducted remotely, in this case through a Zoom meeting, and I wonder if these playful approaches might go someway towards reducing the experience of distance in online learning, helping students to build more meaningful and collaborative relationships with classmates.

So what does playfulness mean to you? How do you experience play at work? And how might you incorporate some playfulness into your teaching? Do you already work with similarly playful approaches to build a sense of community in your classroom? Get in touch with us at the IML team, we’d love to hear your stories of playful approaches in the classroom – online or onsite.

Want to know more?

Dr Maarten Koeners invites you to join the Playful University Club, to form global connections on the creation of holistic pedagogic practices for both students and educators – enabling individual and institutional play and playfulness to foster a culture that supports joyous, authentic transition to the co-creation of knowledge and skills, while counteracting a number of barriers to creativity and wellbeing.

Main image by Robert Collins on Unsplash

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