Playfully Interrogating our Practice

Published: Feb. 16, 2021 By

The higher education literature abounds with buzzwords like “trauma-informed,” “student-centered,” and “inclusive practices.” On a theoretical level, I’d say that most educators believe in the importance of such aspirations. However, on a practical level I see several barriers that commonly lead to education being less than trauma-informed, student-centered, or “inclusive.” [air quotes because the term inclusive is problematic as it implies a powerful and privileged center that marginalized others have to be welcomed into rather than re-creating a more equitable environment from the ground up]. However, the scope of this blog is not to discuss the barriers and issues within higher education. Instead, I suggest a commonly overlooked and underutilized strategy to better achieve our aspirational objectives in academia: assuming a playful pedagogy.

Despite numerous experts discussing the benefits of play at any age (e.g., Brown, 2009; James & Nerantzi, 2019; Sicart, 2014), play routinely finds itself excluded from higher education. Play is seen as only appropriate in early childhood settings - something that isn’t for serious academic study - something that only trivializes learning. Without play or playfulness, students in higher education commonly experience rigid lecture classes where the professor is the all-knowing expert and the students are empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge (Hsu & Malkin, 2011). While not all faculty teach in the same way, the lecture-based approach has been the predominant mode of education for centuries despite evidence that strict lecture is not the most effective form of learning (Brockliss, 1996; Hsu & Malkin, 2011). Sometimes I wonder if we have held on to this mode of teaching simply because it’s what we know best - what we’ve always done.
Play and playfulness has much to offer learning in higher education, however this society tends to undermine and devalue play with its skewed narratives. Our academic culture tends to believe that play is childish, unprofessional, a waste of time, and not for serious endeavors (James & Nerantzi, 2019). When I hear people reiterate these statements, it tells me one of the following: 
  1.  there’s a fear connected to being playful
  2.  there’s a lack of experience with play to understand the value, and/or 
  3.  there hasn’t been a critical examination of the status quo and societal scripts that we passively live by. 
If you don’t already see the value in play, I invite you to consider how a more flexible and playful approach can be beneficial to the learning process. I see teaching playfully as a personal journey and it starts with an examination of what truly holds you back from giving it a try. Maybe some people are just amazingly skilled lecturers - we don’t all have to be the same type of educator. But it behooves us to remain open and flexible and at least examine if our approach is serving our students. There are several readings (listed below) that can provide more information on a playful pedagogy. But perhaps a metaphor will further sell play in learning.
My step uncle was an avid white-water rafter who unfortunately died a few years ago from cancer. At his funeral, one of his nephews read a beautiful story about the lessons he had learned from his uncle about navigating rivers. Quoting his uncle, he said:
Canoe on river surrounded by grass and trees“The water is always stronger than you are, organize your tools and effort, and work with the current. Your goal isn’t to steer the boat so much as putting it in a beneficial position for the currents of the river to steer it.”
As I started using play in my teaching and seeing the outcome, I couldn’t stop thinking about this quote. This white-water lesson is similar to the impact of play in learning for students. Imagine that the water is the student’s stress, trauma, barriers to learning - in my opinion, traditional education (strict, hierarchical lecture-based teaching) is like fighting those currents to try to “steer” students’ learning. However, play is organizing your tools and effort to work with the current. Play reduces stress and anxiety, allows students to feel safe, and enables them to concentrate in order to access the content in a way that is like simply “putting the boat in a beneficial position for the currents of the river” to steer it toward success.
Instead of expecting students to come into the classroom free of challenging currents which you must fight against, play allows you to work with them and provide a more integrated and humanistic form of education that opens students up to learning. We can’t expect our students to automatically be centered, focused, and ready to learn. That would be nice, but it’s not realistic. We must cultivate that with them. That’s something that play is really good at - cultivating a warm classroom environment where there’s trust and relational safety, reducing levels of stress/fear/anxiety, balancing out the overwhelming seriousness so students can approach it from a more centered place. Play awakens students’ motivation so they are more excited to learn and the material becomes intriguing. More motivated students become vulnerably engaged - they take an active stance in their learning, willing to take risks, make mistakes, and receive feedback. When students are allowed this environment, their learning becomes more self-directed, personal and meaningful, and they have a higher likelihood of acquiring skills and longer lasting learning.
It might be too dramatic to suggest play is a hidden superhero in education...but I’ll let you decide that for yourself. At the very least, we owe it to our students to question why we continue to do things the same way for years, decades, and even centuries later even when it may no longer serve us or our students.
Brockliss, L. (1996). A History of the University in Europe. Cambridge University Press.
Brown, S. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. The Penguin Group.
Forbes, L.K. (2020). Fostering fun: Engaging students with asynchronous learning. Faculty Focus, June 17th, 2020.
Forbes, L.K. (2020). A game a day: Fun and dynamic synchronous learning. Faculty Focus, Aug 17th, 2020.
Hsu, A., & Malkin, F. (2011). Shifting the focus from teaching to learning: Rethinking the role of the teacher educator. Contemporary Issues in Education Research, 4(12), 43.
James, A., & Nerantzi, C. (2019). The power of play in higher education: Creativity in tertiary learning. Palgrave Macmillan. 
Langan, A.M., & Smart, F. (2018). Playful learning. Research in Learning Technology, 26, 1-5. Doi: 10.25304/rlt.v26.2079
Sicart, M. (2014). Play matters. MIT Press