In July 2023 I attended the Playful Learning conference at the University of Leicester and presented a workshop with Susannah Quinsee, the former Director of LEaD, now the Vice President Digital and Student Experience. This is the first of two blog posts about the research we presented at the conference. However, it was my second time at Playful Learning (last year I was honoured to keynote) and the conference is genuinely the most fun and inspiring teaching conference I’ve ever attended. You meet people from so many different disciplines who share ideas that on the face of it might sound a bit off the wall, but inspire you in so many ways. I also ran a workshop to write the theme tune to the conference and highly recommend the Pedagodzilla podcast to hear the songs the teams (bands) came up with. A selection of photos from the conference are also available online.
Our workshop was entitled ‘Building a playful learning community’ and Susannah and I reported on our research at City to understand the value of play in higher education. Working with Sara Reimers, Susannah and I held focus groups at City earlier this year, with staff who currently engage in playful learning practices to a greater or lesser degree in their teaching. We were able to present some of the findings from the study, but also wanted to harness the expertise of the Playful Learning conference community to help us answer some tricky questions that have arisen. We will discuss these in the second blog post.
We started our session with a playful activity, asking everyone to help us create a collage of faces to illustrate what a playful learning community looks like. I was partly inspired by the Beatles album cover, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band, so placed Susannah and I in the middle and everyone draw a representation of themselves and put it onto the whiteboard. The end result was very pleasing and we hope it helped set the right tone for the rest of our session.
We outlined the work we’ve done to date to foster a Playful Learning community at City, starting shortly before lockdown when we actually held a number of face to face meetings with a mix of academic and professional services staff who used play, games and creative approaches in their teaching, The group shifted online during Covid, and remains as a Teams site, which has been a little dormant. However, in December 2022, partly as a way of trying to re-boot the community, Susannah and I put out a call for volunteers to join our focus groups. Our research has the following aims:
- Explore what playful learning means at City
- Consider how play has been used in relation to remote learning to engage students
- Consider what support and development is useful for staff engaging in playful learning techniques
- Develop more playful approaches to general university “business” such as committee meetings and other activities
- And to explore the notion of “playful leadership” and how this could be developed at City.
In total we spoke to 14 people in 5 focus groups and one individual interview. We held the sessions online and recorded them. The thematic analysis is still not entirely complete, but we are able to share some findings. Our research is based around 7 main themes that include: how people define play, their rationale for using it, the benefits it brings to their teaching, the challenges, the support they feel they need (or get), how they evaluate their practice and finally we asked them to discuss how playfulness might relate to leadership in higher education. This is a short summary so I’ve picked out a few highlights.
Definitions and rationale
When it comes to definitions, we have noted a wariness or a reluctance of defining their practice as ‘play’– often people used examples of what they did. However we did see a full range of playful approaches (what Nic Whitton calls ‘tools, techniques and tactics’ in her 2018 article). For some it’s all about games, for others it’s about playful or creative approaches to teaching.
As to why they did it, the overwhelming motivation was to build student engagement and to support student learning. Some people told us play made dry subjects more accessible and digestible to students. Some felt that play lends itself to certain disciplines (e.g. performing arts) much better than others.
Benefits and challenges of play
There were a number of benefits to play emerging from our data including the clear view that it helps build a community of learners and it helps to overcome student anxiety. People noted that playful learning is almost always active learning so builds engagement in the task, a sense of flow, and in turn this promotes deep learning. Finally some staff felt that play builds valuable skills (team working, problem solving) in their students. As one participant told us: I teach difficult subject and students get very anxious and they get very worried. And so what I’m trying to do there is have a more playful approach with some of the activities that we do.
Play is clearly not without challenges and staff all reports that activities need to have a clear purpose and need to be linked to their learning outcomes. They also noted that play could be resource intensive and takes time to plan and execute properly. Perhaps of greater concern though was the perception that playful approaches are ‘childish’ and not acceptable (by other staff and by some students).
Support to foster and develop playful learning was recognised as being key and participants noted that often playful champions are few and far between – they felt there was a need to create a culture of play in higher education and at City. They also felt they needed to be given time and funding to create playful learning interventions and games – often they were spending a lot of their own money and time. There was also a concern that it might be harder to demonstrate the value in play and that evidence was important. There was also a sense that senior management value play and don’t just tolerate it. Finally the value of the community of practice was noted – being able to share ideas with like-minded people was recognized as invaluable as a way of getting support. As one participant said: ….Because you see people who are already doing it (play). And if especially if you see people for where it’s worked, I think that’s really helpful. I think the validity is a real issue.
Finally we explored playful leadership and noted a caution around using play in other higher education contexts. Some people had negative experiences of colleagues reacting badly. However there was a sense that support from senior managers was needed. However leaders needed evidence of the value of play in teaching and other contexts to support its wider use. This was largely the purpose of our research, so hopefully by sharing some of these findings we can add to the evidence that play is a key factor in motivating and engaging students in their learning, as well as building a sense of community. But I was left still with the sense that we need to empower staff, to give them the confidence to try new things in their teaching (and possibly to sometimes fail) as this is really the only way we learn.
Coming up next
In the second part of the workshop we ran a world café where we asked the community at the conference to help us tackle some of the tricky issues about designing playful activities, making play inclusive, taking away some of the fear and how to engage senior managers in play. I’ll report on this in part two.
Secker, J., Morrison, C & Ridout, F. (2022) The art of adapting open educational resources for Street Law: Copyright the Card Game a case study. International Journal of Public Legal Education 6 (1) pp.84-103. doi: https://doi.org/10.19164/ijple.v6i1.1296
Secker, J. & Morrison, C., (2022) “Playing with Copyright”, The Journal of Play in Adulthood 4(2), p.106-125. doi: https://doi.org/10.5920/jpa.1034
Whitton N. (2018). Playful learning: tools, techniques, and tactics. Research in Learning Technology, 26. https://doi.org/10.25304/rlt.v26.2035
Whitton, Nicola and Langan, Mark (2019) ‘Fun and games in higher education : an analysis of UK student perspectives,.’, Teaching in higher education., 24 (8). pp. 1000-1013.