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Mapping the physiology of play to education strategy

‘It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye!’  Dr Maarten Koeners on mapping the physiology of play to education strategy

Could our understanding of the physiology of play advance education in to the future?

Play in a broad sense can relate to games and sport but may also extend to activities that include books, Netflix, iTunes, social media, humour, wonder, etc. Therefore, play is an expression that is very personal, contextual, creative, and cultural. Although play often appears to have an end or purpose in itself, it does have profound biological effects on the normal functions of living.

From a learning perspective, despite the continuing stigma of play to be frivolous and a waste of time, institutes are increasingly embedding play into learning and teaching in the form of gamification, role play, curricula co‑design, blended learning and digital badges. Whilst it may be contended that this has proven to increase student engagement and satisfaction, the physiology of play arguably allows for a much greater impact.

Of note here, is how the actions of play physiologically stimulate a vast array of brain activity that can involve all brain centres. Consequently, this has direct effects on how we feel, behave and function right now and in the future.

Studies on the long-term physiology of play have shown its far-reaching effects and how such actions can promote survival, problem solving capabilities, cognitive flexibility and social competence. For example, a brown bear cub has a greater chance of survival if he plays more, and species of rodents, primates, and birds that exhibit the most complex play behaviour have the longest juvenile period and the largest and most flexible brains.

That said, caution is needed!

The exciting and rewarding aspects of play often lie in the tension between creation and destruction. Therefore, play can also have negative physiological consequences. In particular, when play is deprived of joy, it can promote performance anxiety, addiction and aggression. Herein lies the continuing debate surrounding the efficacy and ethical implications of gamification strategies such as ‘points’, ‘leader-boards’ and ‘badges’, which may have negative effects on learning if not utilised effectively. Understanding of the positive and negative effects of play will thus be pivotal in the successful application of play in education moving forward.

Play in education is by no means a new concept, both Socrates’s playfulness with irony and verbal banter and Plato’s own assertion that philosophy is the “truest music” gave play a place in the pursuit of wisdom. However, due to increasingly fast scientific, economic, social and political changes we have dramatically changed the way we communicate, interact and play. It, therefore, seems clear that if we can further tease out the positive physiological effects of play in a contemporary context, we could advance playful learning far beyond increasing knowledge retention and engagement. Specifically, play could promote intellectual dexterity, individual resilience and adaptability.

These important attributes, amongst many others, can help us to adapt in a challenging world where anxiety and mood disorders are becoming epidemic.

Therefore, within this world, in which our cherished education is becoming increasingly pressurised for performance and output, there appears to be a huge potential for joyful play to advance our knowledge processing, while simultaneously acting as an adjunct to counteract mental ill-health.

Maartin Koeners is a Research Fellow at the College of Medicine and Health. Find out more about his work here.

Maartin is collaborating with Incubator Fellow Joe Francis on a project to introduce Playful Learning into the BMBS curriculum. 


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