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Following the success of his first post on Mapping the Physiology of Play to Education Strategy, Dr Maarten Koeners – our favourite playful learning blogger –  invites you to join him on another discussion to explore its potential for radically transforming education (and life) as we know it!

Mapping the physiology of play to education strategy - continued!

As previously discussed, the physiology of play tells us that applying play in education will promote intellectual dexterity, individual resilience and adaptability. These important attributes, amongst others, can help us to adapt in a challenging world. In this sense, playful learning is increasingly recognised as both a fundamental part of the human experience and a paradigm to improve pedagogical practice. However, this has been mostly addressed in childhood, is very limited in adulthood and even less so in higher education. Potentially, playful education could be used to counteract the fear of failing, avoiding of risk and the negative aspects of performativity and goal-oriented behaviour which are typically cultivated in a higher education. Playful learning challenges the continued relevance of solely focusing on quantifiable performance and assessment.

As part of this post, we wish for you to join in on our discussion by reflecting on the following questions. Please post your thoughts in the comments section below:

As an academic, a father of two and a caring human being I’m very much aware of the global trend of young people struggling with increasing educational pressures resulting in a dramatic and unprecedented increase in the prevalence of anxiety and mood disorders. Recently, these concerns were underlined by the WHO’s observation that mental disorders were present in 1/3 of first-year students in 19 colleges across 8 countries. These staggering figures present us with an urgent need to consider alternative teaching strategies and here it is clear to me that the physiology of play can act as an adjunct to counteract mental ill health.

There is however a continuing debate surrounding the efficacy and ethical implications of incorporating gamification strategies within higher education, which may have negative effects on learning if not utilised effectively. Often these strategies are used to support student engagement and focus primarily on outcomes, competition, and rewards, echoing the culture of increased performance pressure.

Understanding how play can engage the student to learn without compounding on the individual pressures seems pivotal in the successful application of play in education moving forward. This is demonstrated in literature as far back as the 1940s, where Harlow et al observed that monkeys were intrinsically motivated to solve puzzles without a reward. In this study, playfully solving a puzzle and hence overcoming an obstacle or solving a problem was its own reward. In fact when offered a treat as a reward, so called extrinsic motivation, the monkeys made more errors and solved the puzzles less frequently.

Importantly, this is mirrored in human behaviour, where it is evident that humans are also intrinsically driven to solve puzzles/problems and overcome obstacles, while an increasing number of studies have confirmed that rewards like monetary incentives are generally detrimental for performance.

Considering this, it is interesting how our current educational systems focus on extrinsic motivations and extrinsic performance indicators (grades, degrees, post-graduate employment or salary prospects) and how also, if gamification is employed, systems such as points, leaderboards and badges, again extrinsic motivators, are favoured.

This poses the question as to whether joy, engagement and play, which are linked with intrinsic motivation, are ever truly fostered.

In order to take full advantage of play in higher education we should not move away from, in my opinion, the most fundamental aspect of play, which is joy. I believe if higher education can foster play in a way that it increases joy, education becomes equal to learning how to solve puzzles and overcome obstacles through experimentation and exploration, while simultaneously cultivating curiosity, learning from failure and reflective risk taking.

The call to arms for making education more playful

In the world we live in now, the way we communicate, interact and play has dramatically changed due to increasingly rapid scientific, economic, social and political changes. In addition there is an increased need for addressing personal wellbeing and mental health. For example the global incidence of murder due to violence and war is lower than the incidence of suicide: 6 vs 11 in every 100,000, respectively.

Therefore, the development of a “Playful University” could transform and adapt higher education to the world we live in now, while curbing the increase in pressure for performance and output.

First, more research is needed. Research to address the benefits of play for personal and professional development and wellbeing within higher education. To progress research and develop applicable content for play in higher education we should ask ourselves ‘What is play?’. I propose to use the definition by Van Vleet et al (2015) with some minor adaptations: ‘Play is an activity or expression that is carried out with the goal of increasing joy with respect to oneself and their surroundings. It involves an enthusiastic and in-the-now attitude or approach and is highly interactive among players or with the activity itself.’

Second, education and awareness on how play can contribute to the educational experience of learners is needed. The potential benefits of play and how this can be incorporated within higher education should be brought to the political sphere, institutional practice and wider social field. This should not only include facts and practices but will also need to include training to (re)connect with individual and institutional playfulness. I aim to do this with my workshop “The physiology of play” where I focus on the biology of play through video’s, exercises and, most important of all, through play.

Third, more and more diverse gamification strategies should be applied effectively within higher education. Much can be learned and is readily available from the multibillion gaming industry. This industry has been incredibly successful to compel us to play, to keep us in a state of “flow” and reward on both an individual and collective level in which losing is learning. Importantly they do this by making play incredibly fun (increase joy) and by adapting their content upon measured output, e.g. changing the probability of a certain reward. With the Education Incubator Project led by Joe Francis we have started a trial gamification of a teaching model together with the company Redgrasp. Redgrasp uses microlearning and gamification to turn any number of documents into a social knowledge game. We aim to increase student’s joy and enthusiasm using this interactive approach.

Finally, discussions on how to develop a “Playful University”, a place that fosters playfulness, should be initiated, continued and expanded. These discussions should address how we can enrich institutional environments to embrace some form of play in order to promote progressive failing, building resilience and developing individual and collective creativity. That said, please join the discussion below and share my aim and passion to make higher education playful!

This article was first featured on Incubator Fellow Joe Francis‘ project blog:  You can read about Dr Maarten Koeners, research Fellow in Physiology at the University of Exeter, here


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