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Blog post Part of special issue: The playful academic

Does playfulness have a place in higher education? A reflection on using playfulness when teaching research methods to postgraduate students

Pete King, Senior Lecturer at Swansea University

Playfulness has been defined as a disposition (Barnett, 1991) a mindset (Skilbeck, 2017) and fundamental for creativity (Cheng-Ping Chang, 2013). I have spent many years working in play and playwork, which is the job where you facilitate space and resources to support the process of children’s play as outlined in the Playwork Principles. Playfulness is essential for the job, but the ‘transferable skills’ from playwork to higher education may not at first appear possible, especially when having to teach to both undergraduate and postgraduate students who left playful activities in their pre- and primary schools.

‘The “transferable skills” from playwork to higher education may not at first appear possible, especially when having to teach to both undergraduate and postgraduate students who left playful activities in their pre- and primary schools.’

I have been teaching in higher education (HE) since 2003 and have always used playfulness in my teaching. I remember introducing the concept of values to youth workers by playing a game of The Price Is Right, selecting randomly five students to appear on ‘contestants row’. I brought into the lecture a gold (not real gold) handbag and asked them how much I paid for it. The idea was around putting a monetary value on the gold handbag to generate discussion on what shapes our values, but using The Price Is Right format enabled a playful introduction to a topic area. From this humble beginning, I’ve now developed a 10-week research module for postgraduate students on the fundamentals of research, and within this module are a range of playful and non-playful activities to introduce topics or illustrate aspects of research.

Research has shown that students have research anxiety (Onwuegbuzie, 1997) and when my postgraduates first enter the lecture room (or in the current climate, the Zoom room) there is a range of research experience and knowledge, from none whatsoever to the varying levels of more accomplished researchers. To introduce the topic of the research process (King, 2020), I use a simple playful exercise of placing students into groups and providing them with 10 straws, eight pieces of tape and one uncooked egg. The idea is for each group to construct out of the straws and tape a contraption that will prevent the egg from breaking when dropped from a height. There are two rationales for doing this playful activity. The first is to create what Burghardt termed the ‘relaxed field’ (Burghardt, 2006), a safe space for play and playfulness to occur. Second, the activity provides a metaphor in relation to different research designs that helps to tackle a research question. The idea is that each group creates its own ‘research design’ indicating that there is more than one way to collect the data, with the egg serving as the metaphor for ‘data’. Hence, get your research design right and the data collected is intact for analysis. Get the design wrong and you’re left with data that is a mess – cracked eggs. What I have found by starting with this playful activity are students who do appear more relaxed, and this enables me to build upon the research process (King, 2020) each week referring to this task.

‘Thank you for teaching all of us so interactively and making the journey in these tough times so easy and fun to learn.’

Student comment from online playful learning

In 2018, I undertook an assessment (King, 2008) of the students’ experience of playfulness in their research module. When initially participating in a playful task, students did not make the links with how it relates to research when compared to non-playful tasks. However, once the playful task is complete, students can relate the task to the research process; and when talking to students, I found they will recall the aspect of the research process related to the activity. This could indicate better memory retention from students in playful tasks rather than more traditional non-playful methods of teaching research. However, a mixture of both playful and non-playful tasks is needed as some students do not appreciate the playful activity.

There is a role for playfulness in HE, whether it is for group cohesion or to introduce a topic, or used to illustrate a point or concept. For me, the use of playfulness was not a huge leap from my professional practice in playwork to higher education, and I would be interested in how other academics, and students in other subject areas use playfulness in their teaching.


Barnett, L. A. (1991). The playful child: Measurement of a disposition to play. Play & Culture, 4(1), 51–74.

Burghardt, G. M. (2006). The genesis of animal play: Testing the limits. MIT Press.

Chang, C-P. (2013). Relationships between playfulness and creativity among students Gifted in Mathematics and Science. Creative Education 4(2), 101–109.

King, P. (2018). An evaluation of using playful and non-playful tasks when teaching research methods in adult higher education. Reflective Practice, 19(5), 666–677.

King, P. (2020). The research in Health and Social Care. In D. J. Edwards & S. Best (Eds.) The Textbook of Health and social care (pp. 61–75). SAGE.

Onwuegbuzie, A. J. (1997). Writing a research proposal: The role of library anxiety, statistics anxiety, and composition anxiety. Library & Information Science Research, 19(1), 5–33.

Skilbeck, A. (2017). Dewey on seriousness, playfulness and the role of the teacher. Educational Sciences, 7(16), 1–14.