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Blog post Part of special issue: The playful academic

Connection and creativity despite Covid-19: Playful learning at university during the pandemic

Alison James, University of Winchester

Over the past decade, interest in play and playful learning in higher education (HE) has grown significantly (James & Brookfield, 2014; James & Nerantzi, 2019). Publications, conferences and events have proliferated (see for example Whitton & Moseley, 2019) and numerous universities have set up their own playful learning networks.

Informed by these developments in 2019, I launched my study into The Value of Play in Higher Education, funded by the Imagination Lab Foundation. Through earlier work I was already aware of the sheer diversity of playful learning approaches at university. They could be collaborative, competitive, solo, internalised and cerebral, or extrovert and physical; board and card games, role plays and simulations, dress up and theatrics, performative and embodied play, escape games, quests and hunts (James, 2019). Through play, students were learning new topics, revising previous ones, honing research and communication skills, and developing critical reflection.

‘Through play, students were learning new topics, revising previous ones, honing research and communication skills, and developing critical reflection.’

In addition, my respondents elaborated numerous forms of value engendered by playful learning. These included increased student motivation, persistence and understanding, and the ability to grapple with difficult concepts and to relate theory and practice. The social impact of play, in creating bonds and building trust, as well as for experimenting safely, was also often highlighted. They were passionate about the relationship between playful teaching (and research) and their own professional values. Many of them expressed this as a matter of identity (‘it’s who I am’) as well as rebuffing any assumption that traditional modes of teaching are the only acceptable ones. This is particularly relevant given that play as a concept is often misunderstood as trivial or underappreciated in an HE context. Through play they were able to express their personal authenticity and commitment to academic practice which would ensure the best possible learning experience for all students (and not just as a clichéd claim from university marketing materials).

My original plan to gather primary data through workshops was revised, inevitably, in March 2020, and replaced by 65 remote interviews. The start of these coincided with universities making the stressful, hectic and high-speed transition to online delivery. In that time of crisis, I learned that respondents felt institutions were prioritising content upload, not teaching approaches, to shore up student learning. While understandable as an emergency response, this was not addressing the confusion, anxiety and isolation affecting the student (and staff) population.

Cheeringly, over the course of the next six months of interviews, I collated examples of educators adapting playful approaches to address educational goals, which also enhanced aspects of wellbeing.

Through a mixture of resourcefulness and inventiveness, educators created online escape rooms, a multitude of simple and complex games (some co-created with students), enlivened online participation with dress codes, props and playful approaches, and drew ideas from new international networks such as Professors at Play, which by summer 2020 had achieved over 500 members. Repeatedly, respondents described how play enabled their students to build the trust, comfort and confidence they needed to grapple with tough subjects. Through it they could create safe spaces in which students could fail, learn, regroup and master. Play helped embed and strengthen understanding, catalyse ideas, provoke curiosity, and generate enjoyment. It enabled people to connect, despite any distance, thereby mitigating disengagement.

The blog presents merely a snapshot of the ways playful learning is being used to energise learning online. My full report on the study will be made freely available in the next few months for anyone wanting to explore this in further detail. It provides insights into playful learning and perceptions of its value for effective adult learning. It recognises the obstacles that playful educators may encounter in a sometimes inhospitable HE climate. And it underscores how essential interactive, connective and humanising approaches to teaching are, especially when courses are predominantly delivered online.

A note on which to conclude: play, like any good pedagogic approach, needs to be chosen to fit context, participants and purpose. The examples shared here are therefore illustrations, not exhortations; I hope, however, they go some way to stimulating further discussion of the place of play in higher education.


James, A., & Brookfield, S. (2014). Engaging imagination: Helping students become creative and reflective thinkers. Jossey-Bass.

James, A. (2019). Making a case for the playful university. In A. James & C. Nerantzi (Eds.), The power of play in higher education: Creativity in tertiary learning. Palgrave Macmillan.

James, A., & Nerantzi, C. (2019). The power of play in higher education: Creativity in tertiary learning. Palgrave Macmillan.

Whitton, N., & Moseley, A. (2019). Playful learning: Events and activities to engage adults. Routledge.