Inform interview
Lego buckets
Creative Commons attribution information
©Glenn Calvin via Flickr

Learning to play, playing to learn: the rise of playful learning in higher education - Digifest speaker, Chrissi Nerantzi

Ever thought about using Lego in lectures or play dough in seminars? Chrissi Nerantzi, principal lecturer in academic CPD at Manchester Metropolitan University, thinks you should at least be considering it. She explains why.

Chrissi Nerantzi

What is playful learning?

"Playful learning is using play activities to immerse ourselves and learn, either on our own or with others in a space we feel safe.  In playful learning it's ok to make mistakes when experimenting with new ideas, when challenging ourselves and others and doing things we normally wouldn’t do - which can lead us to surprising discoveries.

The resources we use might be low tech, such as everyday objects, games and materials, or high tech, such as specific software tools, social or mobile media and mobile apps. Often we don’t need anything and play happens based on pure imagination and we become play resources ourselves.

Playful learning can happen anywhere."

Why should we be interested in playful learning?

"Why shouldn’t we? Play helps us go back to who we really are as human beings, full of life, curiosity and wonder. Creatures who are not afraid to be different, even silly at times and ready to try different things.

Failing is a valuable vehicle for learning and progress. We often forget this. I don’t think many things happen without failure. Through failure we make new discoveries if we engage with the failure. Instead, what often happens is that failure is something that we sweep under the carpet. In a playful situation failure is part of what naturally happens, together with success and celebration, joy and happiness (and also sadness, anger and disappointment at times).

All emotions are part of the play process and all play a role in learning. Learning doesn’t just happen in our heads! Perhaps the suspension of judgment and the safe environment and community help us live these out in play situation and make the most of them."

Can you give me any examples of playful learning in action, where it’s happening, how it happens?

"In my own practice I can’t stop being playful. It’s part of who I am as a practitioner.  I'm an academic developer, so I work with academics and other colleagues who teach or support learning and help them enhance their practices. For me, it is very important to model practices that are less common or novel in their disciplines and open their eyes and minds to new possibilities. This means trying new things, experimenting.

I think we all become more adventurous when we feel that it is ok to do so and when we feel safe. So creating supporting relationships is really vital and encouraging playful experimentation.

About two and a half years ago, I joined Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) and I introduced the use of Lego on one of our modules as part of a teaching qualification for academics. It triggered both vivid interest and some opposition. Of course, we don’t do things intentionally to upset people, but when we do things that are very different, we can generate acute reactions.

Research into our own teaching practice is a really powerful strategy to get the evidence of how a specific intervention worked and was experienced but also the value it had for students or colleagues. And as research is peer reviewed, when disseminated this will strengthen the validity of what we do. It might even change colleagues’ minds, at least some of them.

I would suggest to consider adopting an evidence-based approach when introducing playful learning so that the body of evidence can grow and we can all learn from it and make playful learning more effective. We do also need to acknowledge that playful learning is not going to solve all our problems. It is one of the many strategies and pedagogical tools that academics can have in their toolkit."

So with Lego for example, how does playful learning take place?

"Lego is quite versatile - anybody can build something with Lego but there is also a specific method called Lego Serious Play. It started as an ideas generation method in the business world from within the Lego company but it has also entered higher education in the last few years as we have started recognising the potential. The opportunities are really endless and I have used it with staff and students for learning, teaching, evaluation and research but also as an assessment aid.

The method builds on the idea that building models with our hands is actually thinking with our hands. The models we create are visual representations and rich metaphors of our ideas, thoughts, feelings and understandings. We build and we share. It is a very democratic approach to manage participation and give everybody a voice.

An example from MMU comes from work I have done with a colleague who is a senior lecturer in nutritional science and asked me if we could evaluate the Nutrition 21 module in a way that would help her get rich information and deep insights about the student experience so that the outcomes could inform her module evaluation and future developments. I suggested that we could give Lego Serious Play a go, which enabled us to try it in a different educational context and also put the method to the test.

Students loved it and found it extremely valuable, as did the lecturer who was observing the session I facilitated. The students felt that they connected with their peers so much more quickly and suggested that similar activities should be introduced at the beginning of the course as well, to build community and a sense of belonging.

Students often struggle when they arrive at university, and feel lonely, so introducing playful approaches like this can help them open-up and connect with peers and their tutors – I have seen that Lego Serious Play really helps students to share personal stories and experiences that can help them to get to know each other better. We have evaluated this approach with the lecturer and one student from that group and published a joint paper.

Since introducing Lego at MMU we have applied it in many different contexts and offer courses to help colleagues develop in this area. We also plan to offer external-facing Lego workshops later this year.

Moving beyond Lego what else do playful approaches involve - art or music?

"I use new and old technologies, including everyday objects. Wool, play dough, toys, newspapers and magazines, silly hats, clothing, even pasta and many other things, even pots and pans. I find it important to model ways of playful learning that others could easily and quickly but also inexpensively adapt in their own practice. Art can be valuable for visualising concepts.

I have done this with our Creativity for Learning module, which worked really well. Colleagues felt that it helped them better understand some of the theories we looked at collaboratively and co-constructed as visual artefacts. For this we used old newspapers, balloons, crayons and other objects and the end products were really impressive visualisations of shared thinking that emerged through an iterative playful creative process. "

Creativity for learning unit

Watch this MMU video which asked: what did students think?

I have developed a mixed reality game called Sell your Bargains that takes place in different locations and opens up a different world and new opportunities for academics to look at their practice in a completely fresh light. Too often they feel trapped in a dull lecture theatre or seminar room. But learning happens everywhere.

The game enables them to experience multi-location playful learning and collaborative problem solving at the same time during which we also use smart devices to communicate and capture snippets from the process and journey."

What about digital technologies, how are they used?

"Digital technologies are useful tools. However, I don’t say "now we are going to use our phones" just as I wouldn't say "now we are going to use our pens". We just use them because it makes sense.

Digital tools allow us to be creative in a different way, to share with others and, most importantly, to connect with others. They allow us to have conversations and exchanges about what moves us, to challenge and be challenged and collaborate. These technologies work best when they blend into the background or the fabric of learning.

Simple things work best. It is when we try and over-engineer things that they fall flat but, it is not easy to know what will work so again being playful and trying new things is important. With colleagues from my own and other institutions I have been  experimenting with creating openly-licensed courses and development opportunities for academics using freely available social media and learning and teaching approaches that build on collaboration.

In March this year, we will again be offering the open course Creativity for Learning, an informal cross-institutional collaboration, which is an introduction into more playful learning in a higher education context."

You can view the slides reviewing the #creativeHE course below:

What’s the buzz around playful learning at the moment?

"I think that social media has helped to spread the excitement around playful learning. Many creative and playful practitioners are also open practitioners and share their work using Creative Commons licenses and social media and publish their research in open access journals. If education is for the public good, this should be the default.

More generally, the open education movement really helps spread playful practices too. We are reaching out and others reach out for us.

Last year we published a Creative Magazine around play and were amazed by the volume and range of contributions we received. We had to publish the magazine in two issues. I think this says something about the current appetite for playful learning. As a result of this we set up a Play in HE group on Google+ to continue the conversations.

At MMU colleagues are organising a Playful Learning Conference in July this year and the Association of National Teaching Fellows has picked a theme around play for their annual symposium in March this year."

How do you see playful learning developing in the future?

"Play opens new possibilities and it can invigorate learning and teaching. We often talk about the student experience but the staff experience is equally important.

Could play revitalise our interest in teaching? I think the potential is there. If we feel empowered and have the freedom to play with ideas and apply playful approaches in our practice, I think that will transform how students and staff experience university and what they get out of it.

But, I often hear that academics don’t feel empowered to innovate and teach using less common approaches. This saddens me. We need more leaders that empower us to innovate and be bold."

Join Chrissi at Digifest 2016


This is the fourth in a series of features from our speakers for this year's Digifest. 

Chrissi is speaking on day two of Digifest, 9:00-10:00, during our plenary session about the power of digital for learning and teaching. See full programme.

Join the debate

The views expressed by contributors to Jisc Inform are theirs alone and not necessarily those of Jisc.  You might not agree with everything that the contributors say but you are guaranteed to read something that will raise questions and spark debate while you're at Digifest - and beyond.