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Playful University: supporting the link between joy and learning

Playful University: supporting the link between joy and learning

Maarten Koeners, Steph Comley and Caitlin Kight from the University of Exeter describe how they supported joyful, playful learning online.

Author: Maarten Koeners

Co-authors: Steph Comley and Caitlin Kight

What exactly was the shift in culture and/or organisational practice that you wish to highlight?

Playful learning is increasingly recognized as both a fundamental part of the human experience and a paradigm to improve pedagogical practice. Imagine a place of learning where progressive failing, building resilience and developing individual and collective skills, values, and creativity are not only thought about as a theoretical exercise, but fostered within the pedagogic culture. A place where academic drive can be created and nurtured through joy, engagement and play, where learning to solve problems and overcome obstacles is a reward in its own right.

Unfortunately, play as a fundamental part of life is under threat – when life gets tough, play is often perceived as frivolous and redundant. This is further amplified by the various global uncertainties and social and environmental stressors of which the COVID-19 pandemic is having a profound impact on the quality of our daily lives. Furthermore, play is often seen a socially unacceptable activity for (young) adults. Indeed, playfulness is not usually a characteristic promoted by the curriculum or encouraged by teachers; in fact, play is often seen as a distraction from rigorous learning activities or a sign that students are lacking in focus. This attitude can potentially result in a level of play deprivation which is increasingly being recognised to undermine wellbeing, resilience and learning. Ominously, both students and teachers have expressed grave concerns about the future, in the short and long term, often exacerbated by increases in stress due ever more demanding workloads and corresponding expectations.

To counteract such a play-adverse attitude or culture within academia, we have been endeavouring to raise awareness of how play and playfulness can support learning through our work on the Playful University project – funded by the University of Exeter Education Incubator. This work, supported by Academic Development, aims to create sustainable, integrated and long-term changes in our culture as well as in our practices. We are particularly interested in how a playful attitude or mind-set can foster communities, spread joy and compassion, and facilitate learning. Its launch in Autumn 2020 was especially timely given that Exeter staff and students found themselves unable to return to campus as planned for the 2020-21 academic year.

What did ‘working well’ look like?

The Playful University Club founded by the project provided a variety of online and digital opportunities for house-bound members of the Exeter community (and beyond) to meet up and have a laugh during an otherwise grim time. Two of the Club’s most popular activities were game nights and game mornings, during which Playful University Club members congregated on Zoom to experiment with both digital and analogue games – available through the Games Library and funded by the University of Exeter Alumni Annual Fund. The group made use of several options available through Net Games (see Resources below), which allows players to join remotely using their mobile phones; favourite games included One Night Ultimate Werewolf and Codewords. Lower-tech games included Bring Your Own Book, which required nothing more than being able to grab a nearby book or magazine in order to find a phrase that responded to the prompt randomly provided by the game master; for example, if the prompt were ‘something you don’t want to hear your weatherman say,’ the response might be, ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ (quoting Shakespeare in Richard III, Act 1, Scene 1).

A dedicated Microsoft Teams Team was set up to keep Playful University Club members connected, pose ‘playful challenges’ to encourage group members to enjoy a bit of levity and fun, and to provide information about game-related development activities such as the monthly seminar series, which featured a range of internal and external creative experts. The Playful University Club is also affiliated Arts and Culture, resulting in the though provoking Lecture For Nobody (see resources below), and with community-wide activities such as the innovative Kinder Exeter, a week-long festival of compassion through play. This collaboration in particular demonstrates the way in which Playful University Club activities were not just about playing games, but also using those activities to lift spirits, support wellbeing, and forge connections amongst diverse community members.

This is also evidenced in the work the Playful University Club team are doing to lead and support the inaugural University of Exeter Festival of Compassion. This Festival addresses many of the same values and themes that manifested over the course of the Playful University Incubator project and demonstrates the ways in which ‘play’ is not just associated with gaming, but also (just to list a few examples) music, art, dance, food, and one’s general outlook on and approach to life.

Examples of feedback collated within the Playful University project:

  • “Thank you so much for putting in the effort to make such an interactive and fun lecture! I honestly had not sat through any online pre-recorded lectures with a smile on my face before today!” (student)
  • “I found [the lecture] extremely interesting and thought the interactive [playful] elements were a lot of fun and made the information a lot easier to digest.” (student)
  • “Believe me, I have gained so much support from this community.” (lecturer)
  • “Attending regular games nights and games mornings has been a great way of de-stressing, connecting with colleagues from across the uni, and learning about fun new activities that I can use to jazz up my teaching.” (educator)

How could this practice be spread?

Our recommendations, based on this case study, is to use a variety of hands-on and online peer learning opportunities to help others in our community to appreciate the impact of play on learning and teaching.

In addition to these learning opportunities we recommend to experience, explore and experiment to learn about the variety of ways that playful techniques can manifest and be embedded within their practice. These opportunities take many forms, including the Playful Lab, dedicated workshops through our conference and seminar series, and dissemination of playful techniques embedded within standard teacher training (e.g., Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, Academic Professional programme, and other Continuing Professional Development practices).

A collage of promotional posters for upcoming events

Playful Lab: This is a weekly session that explores learning through the medium of play. It is an informal open group formed from the wider Exeter community, students, and staff focussed on the practice (learning through doing) of games (physical, online, cognitive, computer, etc) storytelling, and hopefully a little magic. The Playful Lab aims to extend our pedagogical ideas of play and how it can joyously co-create knowledge and skills, and use this to make the University a compassionate place where learning to solve problems and overcome obstacles becomes a reward in its own right.

Dedicated workshops: These sessions are held regularly with different topics and structure. For example one for students to help them think about gamifying studying or a drop-in session where colleagues are challenged to think about how gaming could transform their education practice – and are given supplies to create and trial a game on the spot. These sessions are inspired by two memorable workshops run by the Playful University Club – an intensive game-making course delivered by Alke Groppel-Wegener of Staffordshire University, and a virtual field trip designed collaboratively by Jana Wendler, Amy Strike and student interns – making use of online and digital tools such as Gathertown events, interactive Mural maps, and interactive stories written using the ink software. This is not only in bespoke, play-focused events, but within university-wide teacher training such as Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, Academic Professional Programme, and bespoke teaching essentials courses.

Lastly we would recommend community leaders to explore whether there is interest to create a “Centre for playful and compassionate education” to support our recommendations on a national and international level.

copy of a tweet referencing an article about the role of play in higher education


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