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The Meaning of Play in the College Classroom

A new study gets serious about teaching by playing.

Key points

  • A new study looked at how students reacted to a course heavily infused with play.
  • Play creates a safe classroom environment that may be more conducive to learning.
  • Play seems to remove barriers to learning, increase risk-taking, and get students more engaged.

Mark Twain once said, “What work I have done I have done because it has been play.” Apparently, however, many of us in higher education don’t place as high a value on play as did Twain. We refer to each other as “serious academics,” who have philosophies of teaching based on theories and research by other serious academics.

Some of us get playful in the classroom—but usually only sometimes. The literature on active learning (a very serious literature!) abounds with “games” and “activities” that sometimes serve to lighten the atmosphere—in addition to facilitating student learning. And in class, I have been known to tell a joke or two, develop games (such as “Human or Psychologist”), tell students to “have fun” while they study, write, and take tests, and encourage students to take risks by “playing with concepts.” But the literature concerning the uses of play focuses primarily on primary and secondary education. Apparently, play is thought of as juvenile: I think of how many times have I’ve been told to “grow up” when I attempt something playful.

But help is on the way. I want to tell you about a recent study by Dr. Lisa Forbes (Forbes, 2021), who is a clinical assistant professor at my own university, CU Denver. In this study, Forbes does (at least) two wonderful things. First, she incorporated play as a foundation of her courses—part of her very teaching philosophy—rather than an “add-on.” Second, she measured how students experienced the play in their courses.

Here’s what Forbes did: She infused elements of play (and playfulness) into every class session. For example, she started class with a game or some other activity that sometimes wasn’t even related to the course material. She used role-plays, competitions, and other activities (other than lecturing) to explore course concepts.

Although her activities were playful, Forbes’ theoretical and empirical foundations were not frivolous or arbitrary. She based her work (in part) on the “Social Constructivist” theories of people like Piaget and Vygotsky, and the literature on the effectiveness of active learning vs. lecturing.

The participants in her study were 12 graduate students ranging in age from 23-43. She had a research assistant collect journal entries of these students at the beginning and end of their courses, and hold focus groups at the end. (Forbes did not, and does not, know who the participants were.)

Forbes did not do an experimental study that directly compared students in different types of courses. Rather, she did a “phenomenological” study to help us understand what students thought about play as a part of their courses. By analyzing the transcripts of journals and focus group sessions, Forbes identified five major themes that help us understand why play might be an important and effective aspect of college classrooms.

The first theme was that students were surprised at the beginning of the semester that play was going to be part of the course. One student said: “We can do that? We can play?” Students recognized that play was rare in their experience. They saw a course utilizing play as refreshing, “creating a spaciousness for learning that is palpable.”

This leads to the second major finding: “Play cultivates relational safety and a warm classroom environment.” Part of this safe, inclusive classroom climate comes from the professor’s modeling of attributes such as “playfulness, vulnerability, humility, [and] authenticity.” There is good reason to believe that learning best occurs in collaboration with others, and that playfulness is the oil that lubricates the machine of collaboration.

Forbes makes the point that expectations for performance were still high, but that students felt more comfortable taking risks to meet the challenges. Thus, the third theme emerges: “Play removes barriers to learning.” The major barrier seemed to be stress; students felt more relaxed—“even if just for a few moments.” Another barrier she found concerned alertness: “I am more alert and being more alert makes me better able to learn.”

Fear of failure is another barrier to learning, and play seemed to help reduce this fear as well. As one student put it: Play “really took away my self-critique and opened me up for mistakes and … learning.” I (and others, of course) have written about the importance of failure—mistakes—in learning.

On the flip side of removing barriers is a related theme: “Play awakened students’ positive affect and motivation.” A positive spiral seemed to exist: Students were intrigued by playing, thus finding the material more exciting, which then increased motivation, which increased engagement, and on and on. And speaking of engagement—that was the final theme Forbes identified: “Play ignited an open and engaged learning stance to enhance learning.” Forbes writes: “Participants described the learning as more realistic, meaningful, personal, and applied.” They were able to persist through a class period by doing things other than enduring a class period listening (or not) to a lecture.

Once again, it’s important to note that Forbes did not directly test the effectiveness of her approach. But she did find that students noticed things about the play in their courses that are related to better learning. And that gives me a lot to play with as I prepare to teach this fall.

References

Forbes, L. K. (2021). The process of play in learning in higher education: A phenomenological study. Journal of Teaching and Learning, 15(1), 57-73.

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