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Playful University Club #4 – April Monthly Meeting with Alison James

The Playful University Club’s April Monthly Meeting, titled “Are we entering the age of play?”, was hosted by Professor Alison James. As a National Teaching Fellow, Principal Fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy, and a LEGO Serious Play facilitator, Alison is known for her creative and playful approach to teaching. She used her extensive teaching skills to deliver a session that was incredibly engaging and interactive. Her session was supported by findings from her own research into the value of play in Higher Education, as well as the research of countless other academics.

Professor Alison James

We were encouraged to open our minds to creative learning by the introductory activity, where Alison invited us to look at different rocks and tell her what images we could see – animals, birds, water, ice – it was fun and eye-opening to find out what others thought the rocks looked like. It showed us in a playful way how different people can have different perspectives, even when it seems like we’re all looking at the same problem. We also brought jars of small items, such as beads, rice or dried beans. She asked us to consider how our things were different from each other, and how they could be microscopic differences, or more obvious ones. They represented the fractional differences in the ways we perceive play (of course, they were also ideal to play with while listening!)

Alison then moved on to talk about playful & creative approaches to pedagogy, bringing in information from scholars like Miguel Sicart, author of Play Matters. In particular, she structured the talk around Brian Sutton Smith’s 7 rhetorics of play:

1) Play as fate – controlled by destiny, e.g. through games of chance

2) Play as power – expression of power, e.g. sports & competition

3) Play as progress – development, e.g. children learning through play & animal play

4) Play as collective/community identity – play used to construct social identities, e.g. celebrations & festivals

5) Play as the self – play to relax, e.g. individual hobbies

6) Play as imaginary – creativity and innovation through play

7) Play as frivolity – play which goes against the social order, e.g. memes, gifs and banter

We had been asked to bring an object or image which relates to each of the rhetorics, and we love holding them up to the camera and explaining why they embody that type of play. We also considered which form of play we use most, and which we prefer, encouraging us to think about our activities and what skills students and educators actually learn from them. Some found the self to be an important part of play, because it increases joy, while for others, it’s a way of shaping collective identity.

Alison encouraged us to think about how different scholars have different beliefs about play. For some, it is simply for exercising and engaging the brain, while for others, it’s a series of involuntary reactions, which free you from yourself (in many ways, the game plays you!). Biologists see play as instinctive, but know that the pressure to play doesn’t create a healthy playful environment. But do we have to prove the value of play? Or is play valuable in and of itself? Alison feels we should concentrate not on the positive impacts of playfulness, but on enjoying the journey.

So now we have an idea of the meaning of play, is it true that we are entering an age of play in Higher Education?

In Alison’s words, “there has been a growth in belief in the legitimacy of play in higher education”, and educators are beginning to have more freedom to incorporate play into their teaching. Some scholars believe there has been a shift from the work ethic to the play ethic. In her present research, she’s focusing on the relationship between play and imagination, especially within business, and she was able to share some insights into play cultures in different countries/backgrounds. She thinks signs of play are present, especially with regards to individual academics, who are individually making a big difference. Numerous conferences and books tell us that play-based learning at university is about getting students to think laterally, and fighting tired beliefs about “proper” kinds of learning.

Alison left us with two important points:

1) We often don’t realise how we make our activities more playful – if you’re doing something playful, make a note of it and see which “play rhetoric” it’s linked to! It will help you understand the impacts of playful activities better.

2) We should all have no fear of using play as a serious part of pedagogy.

Here’s what attendees liked about the session:

“I’d love to have more sessions with her and her co-creators. Bringing in our own creativity, thoughts, and experiences”

“It was enjoyable all the way through”

Thank you for this wonderful session, Alison!

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