A Personal Story of becoming a Playful Academic

Dr Maarten Koeners

Dr Maarten Koeners wrote this blog as part of the first online Education Incubator Writing Retreat. It is the first in a blog series written by Maarten Koeners on Playful Academia, which can be found here.

Maarten is a Senior Lecturer in Medicine, Nursing and Allied Health Professions at the University of Exeter. He is also an Incubator Fellow for 2020/21, working on a project called ‘The Playful University’.

The Incubator Writing Retreat was held in May 2020 and provided a dedicated space for Incubator Fellows to focus on writing on a topic of their choice. Further blogs written at the event will be published here in future.

Throughout my life, I have been exposed to an increasingly stressful and demanding expectation to perform. This expectation has not only been dictated by society in which we live, but also by deeply ingrained beliefs from my own upbringing, educational experiences, and my efforts to integrate and connect with the world around me. Wherever I lived, learned, or worked, the winner‑takes‑all mentality, characterised by hyper-competitive and performance-based accountability, has always been present. Over the years this has often led to a pattern of self-doubt, stress, and mental ill-health.

The net result was a steady decline of my mental resilience and creativity – ironically, key assets for academics. However, in recent years something has changed. I have to admit it has always been part of me, even though it was often pushed to the background. I discovered that I was the keeper of my own medicine, a remedy that could counteract my fear of failing, my avoidance of risk and my highly cultivated, and often debilitating, goal‑oriented behaviour. What was this personal discovery?

It was play.

Let us pause here for a minute and think about it:

  • What does play mean for us from the moment we are born until you are reading this paragraph right now?
  • What visions do we recall?
  • What smells do we smell?
  • What feelings do we feel when we let the word play linger in our consciousness?

For me, this results in thoughts about exciting and new experiences, thoughts about forgotten and current friendships and relationships, visions of board games and endless football in the street, smells of grass and mountain air. A knot of feelings starts to unravel and are instantly translated in a visceral response, bringing a smile to my face, an itch in my muscles, a whirlpool in my stomach and a sparkle in my eyes.

However, as soon as these thought, visions, smells, and feelings appear they start to dwindle. My brain is firmly bringing me back to my brain’s ‘happy place’, which is thinking, deliberating, planning, scheming and ruminating – not allowing to be distracted by frivolous concepts or expressions like play. It is trying to sell me an old, very attractive and convincing message: My thoughts are precious and need to be taken serious. Who else is going to give me direction and meaning to my existence?! Conspicuously, there is a disquieting conflict of interest here, as my brain will always continue to collude for its own survival and right to exist. Even the famous quote by Descartes comes to mind: “I think therefore I am”. The thinking mind rules supreme and play (and all its benefits) is regarded as waste of energy, or at least inferior to cerebral deliberations.

Wow did I really just think that? Let me ask you a question that often haunts me when I feel like a prisoner of my own cerebral ruminations: How often would you use the off-switch on your thinking brain if there was one?

For me, the ability to break through the incessant mental noise has always been play. Not necessarily as an off‑switch, more like a shift in a point-of-view on my own existence. It has brought me to a stillness and a flow that is connected with my own physiology and which is inseparable from who I am. Throughout my life some form of play has always been connected to significant experiences, insights, creativity and connectivity. From falling in love on a squash court to accepting academic rejections, play is always available to teach me from a different point-of-view. As a child I was always inspired to create and ‘put myself out there’ if I had an audience, even if I had to bribe my brothers with sweets to watch me perform a theatre gimmick or join me in playing a self‑made board game. Reflecting on my personal play, taking my play history as suggested in Stuart Brown’s enlightening book Play (Brown and Vaughan 2009) and continued experimentation with my own triggers for play has enabled me to reconnect with the person who I am.

I invite you to look at your own play history – you will be amazed! Taking some time to reconnect with the joy that we experienced at some point in our lives will enable you to create it again in the now. Try and find activities and expressions in which you experienced a state of ‘flow’.

Flow, as described by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi is an optimal psychological state where psychic energy is effortlessly focussed on clear and achievable goals that provide relevant and immediate feedback to the individual (Csikszentmihalyi 1990). When play promotes a state of flow, it will increase intrinsic drive because of a sense of effortlessness between joy, learning and acquiring skills.

I believe that play is an integral part of the human experience in general and of learning specifically. The human drive to learn appears to be organically created, nurtured and propelled through joy, engagement and play, where learning co-creates our existence.

Let us think about some things we have learned through joy, engagement and play.

Which events, activities or expressions pop up in our mind’s eye?

For me the list is endless and includes basic experiences like learning to walk or ride a bicycle, but also more complex social experiences like learning to make a joke or how to love someone unconditionally.

Reconnecting and integrating play within my daily life and work is having significant reverberations. As a lecturer I am passionate to integrate play and playfulness with my teachings and academic practice. This includes a variety of new initiatives, practices and collaborations, including within University of Exeter: an Education Incubator — ‘The Playful University’, an Alumni Annual Fund – ‘Games Library’, and hosting an Arts & Creative Fellow. In addition I have become captivated with the physiology of play, this has resulted in a recent publication in the International Journal of Play (Koeners and Francis 2020). This drives me to continue to educate myself on how play and playfulness can have a positive effect on learning while simultaneously counteracting a number of barriers to creativity and wellbeing. I aim to extend the idea of play and how it can be used to support a community that fosters joyous co-creation of knowledge and skills – making the University a compassionate place where learning is created and nurtured through joy, engagement and play, where learning to solve problems and overcome obstacles is a reward in its own right.

References

  1. Brown, S. L. and C. C. Vaughan (2009). Play : how it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. New York, Avery.
  2. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow : the psychology of optimal experience. Pymble, NSW ; New York, HarperCollins e-books.
  3. Koeners, M. P. and J. Francis (2020). “The physiology of play: potential relevance for higher education.” International Journal of Play: 1-17. doi:10.1080/21594937.2020.1720128 Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/21594937.2020.1720128

Education Higher Education Incubator Project

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The University of Exeter’s Education Incubator scheme. Promoting pedagogic innovation and collaboration with an aim to enhance learning across the University and beyond.

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