Play-based approaches in academia – Alison James


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

It sounds like an opera or theatre piece! It also sounds multiple – there are so many different voices in academia. It is also an important juxtaposition of playful and academia – while many people are comfortable with the idea of the two being put together, some people still have quite rigid ideas about what ‘academia’ means and how we should operate within it.


2. What might play-based and playful approaches contribute with in higher education? How can we use it?

This is my research area so I believe they contribute LOADS. They work across all disciplines, as Chrissi Nerantzi and I showed in our book The Power of Play in HE: creativity in tertiary learning, they make learning engaging and fun, stimulate curiosity, help students build connections between subjects, create bonds between learners, help students prepare for life outside full time education, are fun etc etc. Students themselves say they do all of these things plus they alleviate stress or mental discomfort. Some critics of play assume that it undermines advanced study, however what it does is bring an alternative filter or mode of learning to a subject which shakes up people’s thinking. We also need to remember that play comes in all shapes and sizes and not just the common or popular kinds, so that we fully explore play for all learners, not just those who like competitions, games etc 


3. Why is play-based and playful imagination important in higher education?

Why should we do it? It’s important in the UK, and perhaps elsewhere, because there is such a dominant shift towards marketised education, students as consumers, and many lecturers are feeling overstretched and are dealing with large classes. They want to find ways to energise and motivate themselves as well as their students in their teaching and learning encounters. We also need to find other ways to teach things, if students are not attending lectures, or are on social media in class, or if they complain that they did not need to attend because their teacher just read their slides off a powerpoint. Good teachers don’t just do this, and will already be thinking about how else they might help their learners grasp difficult concepts and so on.


4. What do play-based spaces and playful places in higher education require of the institution? And is it feasible? 

To me, if you have an imagination you can play anywhere in the institution – obviously within reasonable health and safety limits – on a dodgy rooftop is probably a really bad idea. Depending on how and what you want to play you can do it seated in a traditional lecture theatre, outside on a sports pitch, along paths. At a play festival we held at my former university a student ‘yarn bombed’ the campus in the night to create a magical playful world for students to turn up to the next morning – she wove yarn creations around trees, statues, railings, all the normal infrastructure of an institution. It made a lot of people happy and intrigued.


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

There is always so much that I want to read and have not got time to – my current book which I am about to open is Brian Sutton Smith’s Play for Life, but my present research has also thrown up a whole heap of names of people who I have not read yet and would like to.

With regard to what I would like to ask, it is the question I am currently asking in my own research which is about the use and value of play generally in higher education, but also particularly for the teaching of management concepts and theories. I am trying to contact educators in business and management to see how they are using play and why. Already I am getting powerful messages about the importance of play in higher education but would like more!


Alison James is a Professor of Learning and Teaching, Director of Academic Quality and Development at the University of Winchester, an ILM trained coach and accredited facilitator of LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®. She is also an NTF and a PFHEA 






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