Skip to content

Blog post Part of special issue: The playful academic

Editorial: The playful academic

Maarten Koeners, Senior Lecturer at University of Exeter Medical School

Imagine a place of learning where progressive failing, building resilience, and developing individual and collective skills, values and creativity are not only thought about as a theoretical exercise but also fostered within the pedagogic culture. A place where academic drive can be created and nurtured through joy, engagement and play, where learning to solve problems and overcome obstacles is a reward in its own right. Is this not what will spark the educationalist’s soul to create, learn, teach and innovate? In this special BERA Blog series we will explore – from the six different points of view of educator, researcher, academic advisor, programme director, student and professor – how play and playfulness can facilitate learning. Our aim is to create further discussion of the place of play in higher education.

We start this series with a post by Ian Gilbert and Maarten Koeners, who explore how to promote playful creativity and its relevance for our thinking. Rebecca Hooker then considers how – when implemented logically and appropriately – play can be greatly beneficial for the development of transferable ‘soft skills’ such as resilience, critical thinking, teamwork and problem-solving. In her post, Steph Comley shares an innovative methodology that can help measure and demonstrate the impact of play on learning, such as the depth of understanding. This methodology can help with new research coming from the growing interest in playful education – understanding that the benefits of play and playfulness can go well beyond early child development.

Indeed, the gap in play pedagogy between children and adults is closing with the acceptance of playfulness as a developmental continuum (Koeners & Francis, 2020). On this continuum, play is by no means only about playing games; it also involves an attitude of playful creativity and pursuing a ‘state of flow’. Importantly this playful attitude transcends two common misconceptions around play in academia.

First, play in academia does not have to be resource-intensive or require high levels of pedagogical skills. Academics who connect with their own playfulness can make small incremental changes in their academic practice which will create significant, more joyful teachings – for instance, sharing some music, a video, a joke or a picture that is playful for you.

Second, being playful does not always have to feel as though it is a risk – this can be viewed as a personal perception, often created from our own previous educational experiences. This perception can be transformed by recognising and accepting that play and being playful (childlike not childish) is a fundamental part of the human experience. In their respective posts, Pete King reflects on using playfulness to teach research methods, while Maarten Koeners reflects on using playfulness to make the university a place that fosters compassion.

Unfortunately, play as a fundamental part of life is under threat – when life gets tough, play is often perceived as frivolous and redundant (Brown & Vaughan, 2009). Indeed, both students and teachers have expressed grave concerns about the future, in the short and long term, often exacerbated by increases in stress due to ever more demanding workloads and corresponding expectations (Brown & Vaughan, 2009; Kenny, 2018). This is further amplified by the various global uncertainties and social and environmental stressors of which the Covid-19 pandemic is having the most profound impact on the quality of our daily lives. Tom Nancarrow shares in his post a student perspective on these concerns and makes an argument for incorporating more play into education as a must. The healing potential of playfulness to increase our ability to adapt to change, cope with stress, and improve social connection and quality of life seems to be needed right now, and more than at any time I can remember.

Can promoting playfulness help us to heal society? I believe it can! In our final post of this special BERA Blog series, Alison James explores a variety of examples of how playing in a pandemic has contributed to building trust, comfort and confidence to grapple with tough subjects.

Together, we can create a culture in which academics feel secure enough, trusted enough and comfortable enough to be playful, even if they have no clear preconception of the what, how and the why. Play preferences are personal and subjective, and being playful is part of your soul as a human being. With this blog series we propose we make our first significant step together by allowing academics to be ‘playful academics’.


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

Kenny, J. (2018). Re-empowering academics in a corporate culture: An exploration of workload and performativity in a university. Higher Education, 75(2), 365–380.

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