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Blog post Part of special issue: The playful academic

Becoming a playful academic: A personal story

Maarten Koeners, Senior Lecturer at University of Exeter Medical School

Throughout my life I have been exposed to an increasingly stressful and demanding expectation to perform, dictated not only by society (cultural pressures) but also through beliefs deeply ingrained by my own upbringing, education and my efforts to integrate and connect with the world around me. The winner‑takes‑all mentality, characterised by hypercompetitive and performance-based accountability, has always been present. Over the years this has often led to a pattern of self-doubt and stress. The net result was a steady decline of my mental resilience and creativity (ironically key assets for academics) – mirroring the alarming figures that one person in four will experience some form of mental health issue in any given year. However, in recent years something has changed. I discovered that I was the keeper of my own medicine and could counteract this fear of failing, avoidance of risk, and goal‑oriented behaviour. I discovered play.

Let us pause here for a minute and think about it. What does play mean for us from childhood up to now? What visions, smells, feelings, memories do we recall when we let the word ‘play’ linger in our consciousness?

For me, excitement comes to mind, friendships, board games, endless football in the street, smells of grass and mountain air. My body responds instantly with a smile, a sparkle, itching muscles and a whirlpool in my stomach. However, as soon as these reactions appear they start to dwindle. My brain is firmly bringing me back to its ‘happy place’ of deliberating and planning – not allowing the distraction of frivolous concepts like play. It is trying to sell me an old message, concisely expressed by Descartes: ‘I think therefore I am’, with the mind as supreme ruler of giving direction and meaning to my life, strongly defending its dominion.

Let me ask you a question that often haunts me when I am held prisoner by my own cerebral ruminations: How often would you use the off switch on your thinking brain if there was one?

For me, play provides the tools to break through the incessant mental noise. Not necessarily as an off switch, more like a shift in a point of view on my own existence. It has brought me to a stillness and a flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) that is connected with my own biology and inseparable from who I am. Throughout my life, some form of play has always been connected to significant experiences, insights, creativity and connectivity. From falling in love on a squash court to accepting academic rejections, from performing theatre gimmicks for an audience to bribing my brothers to join me in a self-made board game, play has always inspired and propelled me. Reflecting on my personal play history (Brown & Vaughan, 2009) and continued experimentation with my own triggers for play has enabled me to reconnect with the person who I am. I invite you to take your own play history. Reconnecting with the joy you experienced at some point in your life and the sense of ‘flow’ that went with it, will enable you to create it again in the now.

I believe that play is an integral part of the human experience, and specifically of learning. The human drive to learn appears to be organically nurtured and propelled through joy, engagement and play, where learning co-creates our existence (Koeners & Francis, 2020). Let us think about some things we have learned playfully and joyously. For me, basic experiences come to mind such as rough‑and-tumble play, an activity associated with learning to deal with risk and scary experiences (Rollè et al., 2019), riding a bicycle, but also social experiences like learning to make a joke or how to love someone unconditionally.

‘The human drive to learn appears to be organically nurtured and propelled through joy, engagement and play, where learning co-creates our existence.’

Reconnecting and integrating play within my daily life and work is having significant reverberations. As a lecturer I am passionate about integrating play and playfulness into my teachings and academic practice. This includes a variety of initiatives, practices and collaborations to strengthen the link between learning and joy through play, compassion and connectivity – addressing sensory stimulation, humour, togetherness, novelty, puzzles, games, the use of narratives, and much more. Ultimately, I aim to extend the idea of play and how it can joyously co-create knowledge and skills – making the university a compassionate place where learning to solve problems and overcome obstacles is a reward in its own right.


Brown, S. L., & Vaughan, C. C. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. Avery.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. HarperCollins.

Koeners, M. P., & Francis, J. (2020). The physiology of play: Potential relevance for higher education. International Journal of Play, 9(1) 1–17.

Rollè, L., Gullotta, G., Trombetta, T., Curti, L., Gerino, E., Brustia, P., & Caldarera, A. M. (2019). Father involvement and cognitive development in early and middle childhood: A systematic review. Frontiers in Psychology, 10(2405).