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Playfulness in Higher Education: A Playbox


In this playbox you will find ideas to help you play and be playful - at work, at home, in meetings, in the classroom, when planning events. These resources arise from the work we did on The Dark Would, which was founded and developed by people working in roles as students, administrators and teachers. As a result these resources are inclusive: they’re intended for people who teach (understood in the broadest possible sense), people who support teaching and learning, and learners themselves. In a university, that should be all of us.

But why does play and being playful matter? In working on The Dark Would, we found play to be a useful tool in helping us explore, reflect on, and challenge the role of power, constraints, and permission in the spaces and relationships of higher education pedagogy. Central to this experimentation was an approach based upon exploration side-by-side with students, invoking whole-person and transformative learning models, and the privileging of curiosity and wonder as motivational forces - all of which for us, and for those from whom we received feedback, were positive experiences of learning. By taking this approach to these things we found we were more able to engage with and embody playful thinking.

While theorists have expounded innumerable words trying to define play and playfulness, and often invoke ‘game’ as an allied concept, the working understanding reflected in this playbox sees play as separate to the formality of a game - with established, unchallenged rules and roles, and winners and losers - and being captured more by a spirit of playfulness, which is equal, open, collaborative, and takes few rules as given or set. This work directly challenges approaches to education which would seek to fragment the student, whether this be the dominant neoliberal approach to teaching which focuses on honing only those aspects which will give students a competitive edge in the job market, or a traditionalist understanding of higher education that would see learning in universities as a disembodied, cerebral activity. Playful learning - and living - develops parts of ourselves that education does not usually foster or value. It invites us into the classroom as whole people and gives us the opportunity to emerge as more adaptive, imaginative people who can tackle the complex problems the modern world poses.

Before you dive into the resources, it’s important for us to set out a few key things that we think about when we’re playing and being playful, so that you can consider them too:

  • We think that the real value of play is found when it is bookended with scaffolding and reflection, both tailored to the needs of the participants. For example, we often find that people - adults particularly - need permission to play and be playful. How will you create an environment that is safe enough for your participants to feel able to play? How will you reassure your participants that play and being playful has value?
  • We believe play and being playful is important for lots of reasons, as outlined above, but there is also an argument that play can be undertaken for play’s sake and playful play has an element of inherent fun. As such, there may be something to be said for bearing this in mind and introducing play and playfulness into your workspaces and education for their own and fun's sake.

Finally, you’ll notice that there are four, distinct voices in this playbox. Each of us contributed resources and share them with you from our individual perspectives as academics, teachers, administrators, and students. Below you’ll find brief biographies of each team member, which provides some further information on each person’s approach to teaching, learning, and being playful.


Using The Dark Would to create a playful space