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Blog post Part of special issue: The playful academic

Playful praxis: A student’s perspective

Tom Nancarrow, Student at University of Exeter

Now in my fifth year of higher education (HE), I am in the unfortunate position to have more years as an undergraduate to reflect on than most, yet still have more to look forward to.

Yes, I am a medical student.

Play and medicine almost seem at odds. How would you picture a typical medical student? Poring over books late into the evening? Spending long days helping the medical team? From personal experience, I see someone on the ward getting in the way and trying not to be confused for a patient.

It is true, to an extent, that playfulness does not traditionally feature heavily in a medical curriculum, reflecting its relative absence across most higher education courses.

If you squint into the past and think about those sessions where you were ‘lost in the moment’ or those led by a particularly innovative or inspiring facilitator, the chances are that play will have been involved somewhere.

My own experiences include participating in simulation sessions to learn about the management of the acutely ill patient, role play for learning communication skills, and using chicken thighs for suturing practice. Or perhaps our small group sessions, where students were given a case vignette and were asked to prepare a short presentation on the relevant learning. The most successful sessions used innovative and gamified approaches such as Kahoot! quizzes and clinical examination role play. Consistently, the least effective method was the presentation of ‘dry’ PowerPoint slides.

Interestingly, PowerPoint was the most common teaching modality students chose to use and ultimately, led to negative student feedback about the usefulness of these sessions. There were no structural constraints or assessments to the sessions and the aim was to practise the delivery of useful information to your peers while also expanding your own medical knowledge. Yet, students chose to produce, by their own words, ‘boring’ PowerPoint presentations again and again. This may not be particularly surprising, but what is interesting to consider is why it happened. Is it the lack of perceived learning from these sessions? Or more concerning, could it be that learning through PowerPoint is so ingrained on a student and collaboration between peers so unusual that they are not able to express their true creativity when given the opportunity?

‘Could it be that learning through PowerPoint is so ingrained on a student and collaboration between peers so unusual that they are not able to express their true creativity when given the opportunity?’

If so, this raises the challenge of getting more playfulness into our HE systems.

What is my place in this? A career as a full-time clinician is a scary prospect. Burnout in the NHS is all too common, and it is not infrequent for doctors to advise you against joining their profession. The NHS is changing, and fewer clinicians are going straight into speciality and consultant training. Many train part-time, some decide it is not the career for them and others look at ways to incorporate their wider interests into their careers. This is where academia fits for me – I am concerned that I may not want a full-time clinical career.

The question of the role of playfulness in education is therefore important to me, and it is part of the reason I was an intern at The Playful University Club. Through this position I could immerse myself in the developments of playfulness in HE and gain first-hand experience in delivering playful content, improving my skill set for future involvement in education in the process.

It is well known that play creates a feeling of a ‘safe space’, encouraging confidence and creativity (Nørgård, 2017). While co-hosting a games mornings we used the Mural® template ‘where are we?’ (essentially a world map), where attendees could drop a pin to show their current location, or a place about which they have an interesting story to tell. This game enabled us to learn so much about each other and find all sorts of connections and stories within a virtual setting! I for one did not expect such interest and learning to stem from such a simple game.

Even though I am not yet able to fully appreciate the potential roles of play in education, its importance is clear. We are living in very uncertain times with huge adaptations being made at rapid speed in the education sector to ensure content can be delivered safely and effectively. Incorporating more play into teaching is a must, and there is still ample opportunity to realise its benefits and apply this to curricula, both widely at a university level and individually, through any teaching with which we’re involved.


Nørgård, R. T., Toft-Nielsen, C., & Whitton, N. (2017). Playful learning in higher education: Developing a signature pedagogy, International Journal of Play, 6(3), 272–282.