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Playing with Playmobil: Supporting undergraduate conceptual understanding in environmental and sustainability education

John Parkin, Academic Employability Consultant at Anglia Ruskin University

Playful approaches to learning are well established when teaching children, especially those in early childhood. But there is mounting research evidence about the value of playful learning in higher education (HE), too. Playful learning in HE enhances engagement, creativity, multi-disciplinary learning and conceptual understanding (Rice, 2009); while playful approaches to learning in higher education ‘makes us better at the complex, challenging, horizon-stretching work that a university needs to do’ (James, 2019, p. 18).

The value of playful learning has been evidenced by using Lego® Serious Play® (Warburton et al., 2022) and in this blog post I will discuss how learning with Playmobil pro supports conceptual understanding about environmental and sustainability education in an undergraduate Primary Education Studies module.

‘Playful learning in HE enhances engagement, creativity, multi-disciplinary learning and conceptual understanding.’

In my recently published paper, I used Playmobil pro as a playful tool for learning (Parkin, 2023). Hans Beck designed the first Playmobil small human figures in 1974 (Haymarket Media Group, 2012). Playmobil pro was released in 2020 (figure 1) and is aimed at companies wanting to use playful approaches to support their consideration of strategy, project management and design thinking.

Figure 1: A Playmobil pro starter kit

In my study, I examined how Playmobil pro supported the conceptual understanding of Primary Education Studies undergraduates in a UK university. These final-year students were studying a module about teaching primary-aged children environmental and sustainability education through the arts. The structure used in Playmobil pro activities was based on the LSP core process (Wheeler, 2020). In phase one, participants were asked a question to represent with Playmobil pro, such as ‘what is sustainability?’. During the second phase participants created a Playmobil pro representation. In the third phase, participants discussed their representations. The final phase involved sharing reflections about the activity.

Participants were invited to take a photograph of their representations. Figure 2 shows the Playmobil pro representation made by two students in response to the question ‘what is eco-anxiety and what is it caused by?’ The figure also shows the participants’ observations about what the model represented.

Figure 2: A pair of students’ beliefs about eco-anxiety, its causes and impact on children

At the end of the sessions students were invited to complete an exit ticket and write on a sticky note their reflections on using Playmobil pro, ‘capturing bursts of thinking’ (Leigh, 2012, p. 190). One exit ticket theme was Playmobil pro made learning more engaging. For example, one participant wrote: ‘Playmobil was a good and engaging aid for our learning.’ A second theme was that Playmobil pro enabled participants to make a visual representation of ideas using concrete materials. One participant wrote: ‘Allowed me to make representations of abstract concepts.’ Another theme identified in the exit tickets was that by making a representation with Playmobil pro, subsequent discussions were supported. One participant noted: ‘I struggle to verbalise my thoughts and this provided an effective alternative to expressing my ideas.’ This comment shows how a playful approach to learning can support conceptual understanding.

Overall, Playmobil pro can support undergraduates to develop conceptual understanding and reflect on beliefs. Participants found using Playmobil pro an engaging approach to learning. I have found that using playful approaches to learning enhances both conceptual understanding and student engagement. You may wish to try using a playful approach in your own teaching.


Haymarket Media Group. (2012, July 4). Playmobil. Marketing, 18.

James, A. (2019). Making the case for the playful university’. In A. James & Chrissi Nerantzi (Eds.), The Power of Play in Higher Education (pp. 1–19). Palgrave Macmillan.

Leigh, S. R. (2012). The classroom is alive with the sound of thinking: The power of the exit slip. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 24(2), 189–196. 

Parkin, J. (2023). Enhancing student understanding through playful learning using Playmobil pro. Compass: Journal of Learning and Teaching, 16(2), Article 2.

Rice, L. (2009). Playful learning. Journal for Education in the Built Environment, 4(2), 94–108. 

Warburton, T., Brown, J., & Sandars, J. (2022). The use of Lego® Serious Play® within nurse education: A scoping review. Nurse Education Today, 118.

Wheeler, A. (2020). Using Lego® Serious Play® in higher education with law students: Encouraging playfulness and creativity within library workshops. Legal Information Management, 20(4), 222–226.