Virtuous playfulness – Rikke Toft Nørgård

1. What is the first things that comes to mind when reading the sentence ‘The Playful Voices of Academia’?

The first words that pop up is courage, creativity and care. 

The courage to take risks in research, mess around in teaching, revolt against the academic metrics and subvert the system if it proves to be unethical. 

The creativity to play with words and worlds, to have ‘forschergeist’ (spirit of research) in exploring and experimenting and to be open to being taken over by the play of the world. 

And a caring for the heart, head and hands of academic practice so it dares to play, to care for and play with others sometimes at the expense of yourself (or your ambition) and to care for the world as you play with it and it plays with you. 

Having a playful voice in academia is, to me, to be courageous, creative and caring in academic ways while playing in research, teaching and academic practice.

2. What does the word playful contribute with or change about the university, when you talk about the Playful University?

I think we need to invite for, insist on and integrate playfulness, imagination and wonder into the very fabric of the university to sustain it, nurse it, care for it and make it strong to resist and revolt against forces that seek to control or narrow the possibility space of the university and the academic freedom and critical-creative spirit of its inhabitants. The narrowing of the possibility space of academia might have very grave consequences of the role the university play in society and the world. Simply put, research, teaching and academia might deteriorate and the university might resign and withdraw from the world only to be engulfed by the darkness of metrics, rankings, systems, assessment and transparency. 

Playfulness might be a counter-move or an intentionally deployed tactic to stay open, keep caring, get messy and be free – something that might help us keep the spirit of academia well and alive during challenging times. Here, the virtues of Jon Nixon’s Towards the Virtuous University – The moral bases of academic practice (2008) comes to mind: Truthfulness, Respect, Courage, Compassion, Magnanimity and Care are all pillars of academic practice and the good university. To be playful is also to be virtuous – to be able to ‘play well’ – as is the motto of LEGO. So to me, the playful university is also a virtuous university (and vice versa). 

Another important aspect that is highlighted in the playful university is academic freedom, the freedom to learn and the freedom of scholarly thinking, doing and being. Here, the call for freedom in student experience, research and teaching practice in Bruce Macfarlane’s Freedom to Learn – The threat to student academic freedom and why it needs to be reclaimed (2017) might serve as a bulwark against the unplayful and unhelpful pressures academics currently face both internally and externally. To be playful is to be free – to play ‘against the rules’ when necessary and to become ‘ungovernable’ through play – two traits that also characterises much innovation and discoveries.

Lastly, being playful is also being hope-ful and care-ful as an academic. To play with the world in academia becomes a way of taking care of it and having hopes for it. To try to open up the world for preferable futures, by not being caught in the ‘headlight of harsh realities’ but rather allowing yourself (as an academic or university) to ‘play with alternative futures’. Here, the call for feasible utopias, institutional engagement and relations between university, humanity and world in Ronald Barnett’s The Ecological University – A feasible utopia (2017) reminds us all to play well, be free and work together to create a feasible utopia and play with, within and across all the ecosystems of the university to make it grow and thrive, and perhaps even become playful in and of itself.

So, to me, the word playful helps us realise and work towards all of the above. It profoundly changes the way we think about the university (if we dare to take play seriously). It carries within it the possibility to make systems shake and crack so new beginnings might emerge. The Playful University is the potential of a more generous, caring, listening, open and promising university – a future and freedom worth fighting for – and an institution to fall in love with, play with and live in, both as an academic and as a human being.

“The imagination will not be content in simply being critical; it will not rest simply in point to a “university in ruins” or “the crisis in the university”. Rather, it will seek to imagine, to create new narratives of the fullest kind that may serve the university and take it forward. This is utopian thinking. And it is an injunction upon the imagination; to strive to form new ideas of the university that could represent the university – now in the twenty-first century – as it might be in the best of all possible worlds”. (Barnett 2011, p. 90)


3. Why is playful imagination important in the academic world? And how can we use it? 

In ‘Playfulness and creativity’ (2015) Patrick Bateson writes about how playfulness is an important driver in breakthroughs, discoveries and the ability to come up with new ideas. One example of the importance of playful imagination is the groundbreaking discovery of the antibacterial properties of penicillin:

The discoverer of the anti-bacterial properties of penicillin, Alexander Flemming, was famous for his playfulness. He was accused disapprovingly by his boss of treating research like a game, finding it all great fun. When asked what he did, ha said that “I play with microbes” and went on “…it is very pleasant to break the rules and to be able to find something that nobody had thought of.” (Bateson, 2015, p. 12)

Imaginative development and development of imagination is crucial to the building of institutions, societies and worlds characterised by empathy and solidarity. To have institutions and societies that are genuinely inclusive of people from different backgrounds, of different abilities, and with different viewpoints we need imagination and openness – in other words, playfulness. Imagination and playfulness is deeply interwoven in the relationships between academics and research, and between critical-creative human beings and the development of the world. We need imagination and creativity to sustain and develop the institutions in which we live and to keep an openness to the new, strange, unfamiliar and yet unknown. Which is often the deeper driver of play as well as discovery and good research.  The development of playfulness and imagination is in this way an imperative for the academic world, something discussed at length in the Steps to a Manifesto to Advance Imagination and Creativity in Higher Education Learning and Educational Practice (2019). 

Another important element of playful imagination is its ability to connect

  • complicated thinking, where things are tightly coupled and needs reflective playful practice of ‘sense-analyse-respond leading to good practice, with

  • complex thinking, where things are more loosely coupled and requires playful academic practice of ‘probe-sense-respond’ leading to emergent practice, with

  • chaotic thinking, where things are de-coupled and calls for free and wild academic playfulness of ‘act-sense-respond’ leading to novel practice.

This creates opportunities for powerful academic thinking, doing and being that scaffold and promote academic adventures into the ‘known unknowns’ (things we know we don’t know) and even ‘unknown unknowns’ (things we do not know we don’t know) – which as a long way from the well-structured, measurable and manageable learning and research forms found within the ‘known knowns’ (things we know that we know’) and ‘unknown knowns’ (things unknown to the person but known to the world) . 

This is to say, that if we want to fully embrace the academic possibilities within the space of the unknown knowns we need playful imagination. And while this might make us better at accessing the unknown knowns, playfulness and playful imagination is absolutely crucial when it comes to the unknown unknowns. Here is no other way than to dive into the deep scared play of academic heads, hands and hearts.

Jim Watson described the playful nature of scientific creativity when he and Francis Crick had set themselves the task of uncovering the structure of DNA. Their main working tool had been a set of coloured balls superficially resembling the toys of pre-school children. Watson wrote: “All we had to do was to construct a set of molecular models and begin to play – with luck, the structure would be a helix”. (Bateson, 2015, p. 13)


4. How do we create a place for play in the academic world according to you? And is it feasible? 

On the general level we probably need to invite and allow for more daydreaming at the university – and perhaps even have more daydreaming universities. A university that is not in a hurry and does not have a fixed goal. A university that engage in abstract thought, imaginative ramblings and the ethical pretend-play of what-if’s. A university that invites academic to play along with rearranging actions and thoughts, connect unconnected things and play with no specific end in ways that lets academic escape from false endpoints. A university concerned with being well (rather than performing well) and the well-being of its inhabitants and their research, teaching and learning (rather than their good performance). A university of compassion, care and concern. A university that ‘plays well’ with others and invites for the ‘deep and slow play’ of academia rather than the power play of ‘academia in the fast lane’ at the expense of others.

Another more concrete way of pointing towards how we create a place for play in the academic world might be to extract some core dimensions of what is characteristic of the playful university. Below is one possible list of such traits:

  • Avoid using external rewards or badges or setting up competitive situations or leaderboards

  • Downplay the evaluation, assessment and learning goals or outcomes of students’ work and reward them for taking risks

  • Give ample opportunities for academic frivolity and playfulness

  • Make intrinsic motivation, playfulness and passion a conscious factor in both teacher and student stance

  • Show students that creativity is valued (also by the system)

  • Provide spaces for ‘playing at’ and ‘playing with’ alternatives and troubling or transforming cultural norms

  • Support creativity as the human ability to see and act ‘other than’ or ‘as if’ to challenge and to question the state of things

  • Develop creativity as freedom of thought through thinking, feeling and acting beyond the immediate present or environment to create the new

  • Creativity enables students to disclose a different state of things and opens up to what might be or ought to be through the moral imagination

  • HE as future-oriented practice through creative imagination


(Adopted from Hennessey & Amabile, Creativity and Learning, 1987, p. 25 & Vadeboncoeur et al, Creativity as the Practice of Freedom, 2017)

But then, is it feasible to create such places for play in the academic world? Is the Playful University a feasible utopia or a foolish dream? 

I think the Playful University is both a feasible utopia and a preferable world that begins with people daring to play. I think we should take the university serious on a deeper level by becoming more playful. And I hope and dream that voices banding together and strong academic invitations to play might help. I hope this place – The Playful University Platform – might be such a place where play can begin.

5. What would YOU like to ask or read more about in relation to play, playfulness & academia (max 280 characters including spaces)?

I would love to read more about strong cases for playful academia and compelling examples of playful universities. Cases and examples that clearly shows that being playful is not at the expense of being academic.




Rikke Toft Nørgård is Associate Professor at Aarhus University. She is in the steering group of Centre for Higher Education Futures (CHEF), board member of the international Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education Society (PaTHES) and organiser of the Playful University Conference 2019. Nørgård’s research focuses on the complexities and interrelationships of technology play theories, education, design and philosophy. She is consortium partner lead in several funded projects with a particular focus on developing future education. Projects include ‘VASE – Value-Sensitive Design in Higher Education’, ‘IGNITE – Design Thinking and Making in the Arts and Sciences’ and ‘STAK – Students’ Academic Digital Competencies in Higher Education’. Recently, she has given keynotes on ‘The Playful University: Poetry, passion, polyphony, potency’ (2018), ‘The Signature of Playful Teaching and Learning’ (2018) and ‘Expanding Horizons: Materialising imagination in teaching & learning through playfulness’ (2019)




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