Play Matters: Play-Full Teaching In Higher Education

“For children, play is learning” (Keynote, Children & Nature Network, April, 2017)

Some topics get a lot of airtime in education. The value of play for children’s well-being and intellectual development is one such topic. There is ample research to back up this claim (e.g. Ginsburg, 2007; Lewis 2017). But if I change one word—“For adults, play is learning”—then the situations changes. We tend to forget that all learners need to play. “Play”—in the many different forms it takes—is learning for humans of all ages. Play drives the growth of the adult brain as well (Brown, 2009).

This post provides a rationale (if you need one) and practical support for including play—and playfulness—in the context of Higher Education. I’ve been inspired to create this post by recent conversations with colleagues and by Dr. Stuart Brown’s book Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul (2009; Avery Publishers). (You will find Dr. Stuart Brown’s TED talk on play included at the end of the post.) Be forewarned: I  play with hashtags all the way through. Please choose and use your favorite! #playforall

*This post was originally published on the Creativity Post.

Defining “play”

Dr. Stuart Brown resists rigidly defining “play”—and I’m glad. But he does provide many examples of what it can look/feel like. One of the major themes running through Brown’s book is that #playisprimal—not only is it “preconscious” and “preverbal” (p. 15) but it is built into our DNA and has been a force in our development through millions of years of evolution. Human beings “are designed to find fulfillment and creative growth through play” (p. 13). We are all born with a biological drive to play—and, unless a more important need has our attention (e.g. to survive, to eat and to sleep), then we play.

The drive to play manifests itself differently and so too does the look/feel of play for learners. Ways to support #playforall in education are multifaceted. Still, here are some #playbasics:

  • Play engages emotions.
  • Play has a built in “repeat button”—at some other time we will want to do it again.
  • Play may be associated with a particular activity.
  • Play may be “a state of mind”.
  • Play may lead to a loss of sense of time.
  • Play feels good—it is enjoyable, pleasurable.

Why Play In Higher Education?

#playconnects Play aids brain development: “The truth is that play seems to be one of the most advanced methods nature has invented to allow a complex brain to create itself” (Brown, p. 40). Childhood is a time we most see play—it is also the time of most rapid brain development. Play supports the creation and testing of new connections in the brain—all kinds that are important in ways neuroscientists aren’t aware of. Play allows children (and adults) to safely test ways of thinking, learning—without fear of survival.

#playtoremember (and #remembertoplay) Playful activities—humor, games, drama, dance, story—that bring ideas to life (and engage emotion) help us to remember. Indeed, they are the tools of the poet—woven into the great tales of oral bards.

#playislearning “Play isn’t the enemy of learning, it’s learning’s partner. Play is like fertilizer for brain growth. It’s crazy not to use it” (101). Ahhh… metaphor. I’m sure you have an image in your mind (I do) of fertilizing your brain through play. For challenging, highly academic, abstract ideas—we are, again, foolish not to “play”—Brown reminds us that “sometimes the best way to get the feel of a complicated subject is to just play with it”. Play allows learners to enter imaginatively into subject matter—trying/retrying/testing ideas.


#playformastery Rote learning of anything can only get us so far on the road to mastery: “to become a master, the pupil has to go beyond what is known, has to learn what has not been shown by others in the field” (Brown, p. 141). This is a particularly important “take-away” for professors of Higher Education in which the content knowledge may inevitably require memorization. With remembered knowledge—is there time for #play? Playing with that “hunch”—wondering, risking, exploring, testing, retesting, what-if’ing, opening, adapting…

#playforflexibility Brown (2009) argues that play supports brain health; the brain actually works better if we play and is more able to deal with our unpredictable, changing world:

With enough play, the brain works better. We feel more optimistic and more creative. We revel in novelties—a new fashion, new car, a new joke. And through our embrace of the new we are attracted to situations that test skills we do not need now, but may need in the future (p. 43)

#playcreates #playinnovates Play fuels creativity and innovation—increasingly you see that those companies that require innovative and imaginative outputs from their employees build in time to “play”. Is this time off working task? No. This is working activity that actually stimulates and supports innovation. Dr. Brown argues that play (not necessity) is the “mother of invention” (p. 135) Creative people, creative acts come in all shapes and sizes—they may be highly imaginative and “out of this world”, they may be firmly placed in reality. Innovation and creation have realworld meaning and context. Through play processes underlying innovative thinking can unfold—fantasy and reality can connect in productive ways. Openness to possibilities emerge.

6 Ways To Play In Higher Education

  1. Be A Story-Teller: I’m not suggesting you create fictions or spend time talking about your weekend…Rather, I urge you to reveal what is emotionally engaging about the topic. The importance of the story-form is a thread that runs through all the posts on #imaginEDDr. Kieran Egan’s work on Imaginative Education demonstrates how story is the most powerful cognitive tool we have to engage imagination and make learning meaningful for all learners. Dr. Brown reminds us of the power of story for learning:

Storytelling has been identified as the unit of human understanding. It occupies a central place in early development and learning about the world, oneself, and ones place in it. (Brown, pp. 91-92)

Story is a tool of human understanding and it often is part of our #playtime. #storyisplay:

Storytelling has the capacity to produce a sense of timelessness, pleaure, and an altered state of vicarious involvement that identifies narrative and storytelling with states of play (p. 92).

  1. Seek The Humorous. How often do you ask your students to consider what’s odd or unusual?…Isn’t it “funny” that…? How odd that…? While it may not be suitable at all times, learning can be facilitated when a sense of light-heartedness infuses teaching. Do you teach with a sense of irony? [Interesting recent article on workplace humor: Mathew, H.E. & Vijayalakshmi, V. (2017).]
  2. Re-enact. Engage In Simulations. Consider ways to enact scenarios or situations—there may be “simulation” types of games that allow exploration of content. (Check out all the work now on “gamification” in the classroom—my interest here is in how the game format can teach content knowledge.)
  3. Play With Mental Images And Analogies. What vivid, odd, or unusual mental images can be evoked from words to introduce new concepts or ideas? How might students demonstrate their learning of content knowledge through evoking images? Scenario or case-study-based approaches can work here. What happens if…What could explain why… Send your students on a hunt for the “perfect” metaphor or analogy to explain a concept. Have them use words to evoke an image of that idea. (Of course, no metaphor is perfect…but it’s fun trying to find one that suits.)
  4. Brainstorm. Imagine your way into a topic by considering any possibilities. Make your classroom into a “big wastebasket”. Dr. Brown advocates brainstorming as a great way to play with new ideas: “enjoy thinking up and throwing out one hundred ideas before finding the single good one” (p. 141). Create fifty possibilities (without judgment)—then throw out forty-five. Deciding which ideas to throw away will require subject matter knowledge, analysis, research, of course, but the “brainstorm” is a context that allows throwing out ideas—risking and being wrong—on the part of the learner. Which ideas to keep? Which to throw away? The initial decisions may be easy but continue to play as you narrow down the list.
  5. Get Controversial & Change of Context. Engage in role-play or perspective-taking with the “acceptable” and far-fetched ideas. Invoke unusual scenarios or enlist students to take on unusual roles. For adult learners who enjoy theoretical thinking, making sense of anomalies is a powerful way to learn and emotionally engage. These anomalies can be introduced through debate or dialogue. What matters, of course, is the student’s willingness to entertain them. A learning context that is #playful will help:

The state that most promotes …serendipitous moments and makes us open to anomalies is one of play. (Brown, p. 142)

Dr. Brown reminds us—using examples from great thinkers, innovators, educators, and scientists—that we will be more open to exploring other ideas if we say “hhhmmm, that’s odd…” Looks for what’s #funny—consider possibilities. In one of my curriculum theory classes for graduate students we examine a range of pedagogical ideas through a giant role-play activity in which the students come to class in-role, as experts of different theories or ideas. They must present “their” educational idea at our “Conference” and, of course, the ideas are controversial and they are encouraged to challenge each other and debate in role.

Hear From These Professors

Enough from me. I asked Dr. Glen Ellis (Professor of Enginneering) and Kate Charette (Teacher Educator & PhD Candidate) how they support #play #playfullness in their teaching. This is what they had to say:

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#keepplaying because…

Play makes us smarter.

Play enables us to learn more about the world—it expands our world.

Play teaches us to adapt to a changing world (Brown, p. 49)


How do you enable learning through play/playfulness in your teaching? How do your students play? Can you think of any hashtags I missed? (#theneverendingpost?)

More on #play from imaginED  

Playing In The Fields of Mars (By Jailson Lima)

Unleashing The Imagination In The Natural Sciences With The Visual Arts (By Jailson Lima)

How Playful Thinking (& Reading) Can Improve Learning (By Fred Harwood)

Do Elementary Students Need Time to Play? (By Holly Kline)

Our #imaginEDchat on PLAY


Recommended Viewing:

And reading:

Ginsburg, K. R., (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics, 119(1), 182-191.

Lewis, P. J. (2017). The erosion of play, International Journal of Play, 6(1), pp. 10-23, DOI: 10.1080/21594937.2017.1288391

Mathew, H.E. & Vijayalakshmi, V. (2017). Changing Definitions of Work and Play: Importance of Workplace Humour. Psychological Studies, 62(1).

van der Aalsvoort, G. & Broadhead, P. (2016). Working Across Disciplines to Understand Playful Learning in Educational Settings, Childhood Education, 92(6), pp. 483-493. DOI: 10.1080/00094056.2016.1251798







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