Once upon a time in an old house in the middle of some dark woods I stumbled on a magical world where it was ok to do apparently meaningless, fun things and where failure was celebrated as a positive part of learning (and life). This place was call the Playful Learning Conference 2019 and it blew my mind…
Now in its 4th year (and 1st in Leicester) I felt very fortunate to have gained access to this magical kingdom, as I learned that half the people who tried to get in were turned away at the gates (didn’t have their proposals accepted).
The values of the conference seemed pretty clear: Innovation, Integrity, and Collegiality all served up with a refreshing side of Silliness. This was a packed 3 days, and these are just some of my personal highlights…
We heard from the ever inventive Alison James who in her keynote ‘Scottie Dog, Mushrooms and LEGO: tales of playful travel around the academy’ told us a story about a dog (well it was really a handbag) called Scottie – we even got to pass the dog round and write some more stories about him, and the winner won a prize. Alison provided a fantastic theoretical backdrop for the role of play in pedagogy, citing Brian Sutton-Smith’s Ambiguity of Play among many others, and identified some different aspects of play for our consideration:
On a more serious note, Alison acknowledged that there was still a mountain to climb in terms of the acceptance of playful pedagogies within the culture of UK Higher Education. She went on to share her experiences of the Play and Creativity Festival at University of Winchester: you can read more about this in a previous post. My most memorable phrase came from Winchester’s Chancellor, Alan Titchmarsh: he referred to the significance for learning of not only including the Head, but also the Heart and Hand. A sentiment that could be applied across this conference, and has resonance throughout my own work. You can read Alison’s thoughts on the conference here: https://engagingimagination.com/2019/07/12/ponderings-from-playlearn19/
Rachel Stead had adapted LEGO® Serious Play® (LSP) to develop revision sessions for Education Psychology undergraduates using visual mnemonics. This project was developed by both staff and students, and preliminary findings indicated that the sessions increased student abilities in tasks such as ‘Making & explaining links between theory and practice’ substantially.
In Rachel’s session, in a twist on the LSP ‘Explain this!’ exercise, my partner and I had to describe how one model represented eight different meanings, all in around a minute and a half! My reflection from this experience was that it’s useful to remind yourself of the perspective of the time-pressured participant when you are used to facilitating LSP sessions…
In a complimentary but quite different workshop, Jessica Hancock discussed the way that she had used LEGO® bricks to enable students to take a compassionate approach to exploring identity. I found this a very powerful workshop, which echoed my own interest in the emotional dimensions of learning. My model of a ‘personal stressor’ within my HE experience was quite scary: I was positioned between the ferocious shark of low self-esteem and the lovely white horse of pedagogic leadership…You can see more models from this session here: https://padlet.com/drjess/play
After all this playful deep thinking it was time to unwind with my outdoor activity, ‘Make, Do and Meditate: Contemplation with LEGO®’. We sat under the trees on blankets, listened to some relaxing music and used white and clear bricks for a contemplative activity.
As the freeform models grew and the resulting reflections and insights came up, they were captured on paper thought bubbles which hung from the trees:
One participant was even inspired to write a Haiku based on her model…
Day 2 of the conference provided one of my favourite sessions: Stephanie (Charlie) Farley took us on a visual, tactile journey relating to implementing a Playful Engagement Strategy for staff. I particularly enjoyed the way that images from the University of Edinburgh Image Collections were used as a basis for reflection and discussion, and also the clearly- structured application of the Ketso method.
After adding different-coloured leaves to our tree (useful to see how the colours could inform the theming of data) our final top three solutions for implementing a Playful Engagement Strategy were identified. For my group these were: ‘Resources & budget behind the ideas’, ‘Articulating the benefits for the institution in terms of engagement, retention and inclusivity’ and ‘Peer learning and sharing opportunities’.
Lauren Traczykowski‘s workshop applied a multi-sensory approach to the tricky subject of ethics. After some input on ethical theory, we built ‘Models of ethical behaviour’ using a selection of craft materials in response to questions such as ‘How do we resolve the gender pay gap?’. Not as easy as it sounds! You can see my group’s response below…then we had the even trickier task of translating our model into words. This was a challenging and stimulating way of approaching complex issues and considering different theoretical perspectives, and could be applied to many other teaching contexts.
Day 3 gave Kaye Towlson and I the chance to deliver our ‘Collage meets SWOT analysis’ workshop: ‘Playful reflection with Swollage’. Participants used free-association collage to create a Mood Board (a term that clearly has some varying connotations) relating to themselves. They were then asked to reflect on the images that they had chosen, and annotate their collage accordingly. Peer comments and suggestions were added via post-it notes, and finally a personal SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) template was filled in.
It was interesting to see how the lively and often competitive activities of the Playful Learning Conference threw the quieter, contemplative Mindful Lego and Swollage workshops into sharp relief. Participants valued the opportunity to pause and reflect, taking time out to consider thoughts that were bubbling under the surface of the conscious mind.
So what were the main themes of the conference? I think that these words from a fascinating session with Leicester Print Workshop sum it up pretty well…(churprise was a word coined at the conference combining chaos and surprise).
I found the conference a rich source of inspiration, both in terms of experiences and people, it has also demonstrated the broad scope that ‘Playful Learning’ covers (it’s not just about gamification). The conference has enabled me to re-contextualise my own playful practice, I can see that I sit very much at the contemplative rather than the competitive end of the Playful Learning spectrum.
A more tangible take away was a copy of ‘Playful Learning: Events and Activities to Engage Adults‘: this is choc-full of practical ideas to try out, informed by years of experience in running playful events. There’s a review of the book here: https://www.journalofplayinadulthood.org.uk/article/id/654/
To see more from the conference take a look at #playlearn19 and if you’d like to get involved, there is a new Playful Learning Association that you can join: http://pla.playthinklearn.net/
So, as I leave the magic kingdom and return to the ‘real’ world, blinking in the cold light of day, I try to work out whether this has all been a dream…surely there’s no space for playful learning in our marketised, metrics-driven HE environment?
See you in the playground…
Brain Sutton-Smith quote above taken from Mathias Poulsen‘s session on ‘Playing at the edge of Democracy’: