Introduction to playfulness


What is play and what is it to be playful?

Play and playfulness are where complex concepts and phenomena. But in this section we will try to give a short introduction for you to get a sense of what it is to be playful in education. For a more though introduction to the concept of play we refer to Miguel Sicart's book Play Matters and for an introduction to playful learning in adult education we refer to Rikke Toft Nørgård, Claus Toft-Nielsen and Nicola Whitton's "Playful learning in higher education: developing a signature pedagogy" (2017).

But before we introduce you to the concept of play and playfulness it might be useful to see how teachers, educational developers and people with an interest in education think that 'playful' is best captured in words. The wordcloud below is made by around 50 such persons participating in the EDUCA workshop "Potentials of playful teaching and learning". Here the participants were asked to put two the two words in the word cloud that the thought best captured the meaning of 'playful'. The words that are biggest have the most identical entries, while the smallest ones have the fewest (the smallest only one unique entry). In this way, the biggest words in the wordcloud are the ones people are in biggest agreement on when it comes to defining the word 'playful'.

As it becomes visible when inspecting the words that make up the word cloud, playfulness is a quite diverse and multi-multi-facceted word with a lot of different meanings and connotations. Playfulness can pertain to an object, like games, youtube or toys. It can point towards certain types of actions like consumption, laughing, innovation or sharing. It can point towards a mood or inner state such as fun, silliness, joy, imagination or motivation. Or it can point towards something outside the person such as teams, time or technology.

But, looking into the philosophy and theory of play, can we point towards some traits or characteristics that 'play' share across objects, subjects, experiences, interactions, situations, contexts and cultures? According to play theorist Miguel Sicart there are (at least) seven traits that seem to cut across the different instantiations and evocations of play.

The difference between play and playfulness

Considering the above 7 characteristics of play, it is important to bear in mind some of the important differences between 'play' and being 'playful'. These differences are especially key when we consider the role that playfulness might have in teaching and learning. Firstly, play is autotelic, meaning that it is an activity that carries its own goals and purposes. Meaning that, play can, as such, not have a learning goal, teaching purpose or pedagogical aim attached to it. In this way, play has no place in education, in that education will always have purpose, goals or intentions, and therefore play and education will 'destroy each other' if they are put in the same context. Secondly, play is appropriative and disruptive, and as such has a propensity to take over the learning or teaching situation. When 'in play' people naturally changes the meaning of things, dissolves a serious context with laughter or transgress the boundaries of the teaching or learning (e.g. turning the teacher into a giraffe, start throwing paper balls at each other, pretending that the classroom is a big ship or that the other students are suddenly terribly frightening). The nature and power of play easily gets in the way of education.

However, the same is not true of being 'playful'. As the blow quote from Miguel Sicart shows 'playfulness' is different from play in that it respects the purposes, intentions and aims of the original context into which it is inserted:



The characteristics of games and play - or the difference between being 'gameful' and being 'playful'

In the picture below we have tried, building on game scholar Dan Dixon's "Nietzsche contra Caillois: beyond play and games" (2009), to outline some important differences between creating 'gameful' and 'playful' learning environments. Drawing on foundational play scholars like Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois, Dixon distinguishes between playful interactions and experiences and gameful interactions and experiences. These distinctions are also important to bear in mind when it comes to education. To be a playful teacher is not the same as being a gameful teacher - and a playful environment is experienced quite differently than a gameful learning environment. Often, to create a rewarding and meaningful learning environment, it requires that the teacher or educational developer is capable of juggling and mixing these two dimensions in reflective and purposeful ways.



A playful approach to teaching and learning in Higher Education

While playful teaching and learning in K-12 is somewhat mature and developed, the same can not be said when it comes to adult or higher education. However, a growing interest on the topic has emerged, as well as evidences about the impact of playful approaches in adulthood (Nørgård, Toft-Nielsen & Whitton, 2017). In 2019 the first journal on Play in Adulthood launched and there is also the conference Playful Learning - a conference on exploring fun, play, games and engagement in adult learning that has been running since 2016.

In the following are some of the core concepts within the field of playful learning that has been adopted and adjusted from play theories: the concept of the ‘magic circle’ (Huizinga, 1955; Salen & Zimmerman, 2004 cit in Nørgård, Toft-Nielsen & Whitton, 2017), and the concept of ‘lusory attitude’ (Suits, 1978, cit. in Nørgård, Toft-Nielsen & Whitton). These are in (Nørgård, Toft-Nielsen & Whitton, 2017) connected with two research studies on adult motivation to extract the signature of playful teaching and learning.

The “magic circle’

Nørgård, Toft-Nielsen and Whitton (2017) defines the ‘magic circle’ as a (physical or imaginary) play space that is separate from the real world and mutually-constructed by those within and around it. As a boundary, the circle demarcates a space of safety, where the rules of the real world do not necessarily apply and the internal mechanisms and experiences of play can emerge. They are characterized by different norms and codes of practice, where free experimentation with stereotypical rules of behaviour, belief, or interaction is possible.

The magic circle is not considered a concrete demarcated space (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004), but a socially-constructed liminal space created during instances of being playful.

When it comes to playful education, the magic circle has some interesting potentials when it comes to teaching and learning environments:

A “lusory attitude”

A ‘lusory attitude’ is defined in Nørgård, Toft-Nielsen & Whitton (2017) as “the willingness to accept the normal systems of logic or ethics may be replaced temporary by new ones, pertaining to the magic circle. Adopting a lusory attitude, then, is the ability to give oneself over to the experience of playfulness and accepting the immersion in the playful experience with a spirit of sacred rather than profane enjoyment, allowing oneself the freedom to be playful and, subsequently, the freedom to fail at achieving ones lusory goals. This is a shared mind-set that participants accept as they cross the virtual boundary into an imaginary and imaginative space of playfulness, where interactions and experiences emerge through exploration of freedom and control within the magic circle”.

This framing of the attitude emerging from being within the magic circle is both interesting and promising for education as it allows safe spaces for imagining a different type of learning environment in which making mistakes, experimenting, and exploring is not only encouraged, but is necessary in order for competency to emerge (Remmele & Whitton, 2014, cit. in Nørgård, Toft-Nielsen & Whitton, 2017). Creating such learning environments in adulthood allows for an educational liminal space within higher education; a space for improvisatory and risky play with worlds and alternative framings; a space where active, ideational, and explorative experiences can take place (Whitton, 2014, cit. in Nørgård, Toft-Nielsen & Whitton, 2017).


In the below video from the EDUCA talk and workshop on "The Potentials of Playful Teaching and Learning" you can watch Associate Professor Rikke Toft Nørgård explaining the above framework as well as some of the experienced benefits and potentials of being in a playful learning environment.

You can also see the slides from the talk and workshop here.

A signature pedagogy of playful learning in Higher Education

In their article, Nørgård, Toft-Nielsen & Whitton (2017) developed the notion of a “signature pedagogy of playful learning in Higher Education” to consider the possibilities of an educational framework that recognises and promotes the importance of openness, curiosity, risk-taking and fail forward in learning.

The model propose that the surface structures are those that echo the visible elements of play and games, the deep structures epitomise playful interactions, and the implicit structures embody the experience and nature of playfulness.

Operational elements of playful learning, drawn from the established practices of gameful learning

Following Nørgård, Toft-Nielsen & Whitton (2017), the surface structure of the playful signature pedagogy in HE draw elements for the established practices of games and play, namely:

  • Ease of entry into play or the magic circle and learning through supported practice while providing ways of becoming ‘unstuck’.
  • Appropriate, gradually increasing yet achievable, levels of challenge and use of engaging game mechanics such as visible progression, achievement indicators, and competition (Deterding, 2012), and the use of artefacts such as play or game materials or technologies are recognised approaches in game design.

Nature of play activities

Following Nørgård, Toft-Nielsen & Whitton (2017), the deep structure of the playful signature pedagogy in HE points out to:

  • Elements of active and physical engagement and collaborative learning (core elements of constructivist learning).
  • Elements of novelty and surprise and the imagination of possibilities. Imagining possibilities could involve puzzle-solving, telling stories, or creating objects but the common thread is the use of ideation, open-mindedness, and creative thinking to experiment, explore and discoverer unthought-of possibilities.

Implicit playful structures (the values of teaching and learning)

Finally the implicit playful structures were drawn from the theoretical lens of the magic circle and envolve:

  • A lusory attitude and willingness to enter an imagination space that is separate from the real-world, with passion and enthusiasm from both teachers and students, and a democratic environment of co-learning are essential factors for creating an environment of mutual trust.

The creation of a space where failing forward can be viewed as an integral part of the learning paradigm as well as risk-taking and innovation. The ability to manage failure, both emotionally and practically, increases students’ abilities to negotiate risk and develop creative solutions to complex problems. It is by fostering and promoting reflective risk-taking and open-ended engagements with the not-yet-known that learners can explore and experiment with new possibilities and ways of thinking (Nelson & Stolterman, 2012).


To gain a bit more insight into some of the potential benefits or outcomes of playful learning environments, we have tried listing some of the insights coming out of the student evaluations of being in such environments and/or experiencing playful teaching and learning. The evaluation are framed through the analytical lenses of play and game theories to create a framework for conceptualising and developing playful teaching and learning activities and/or playful learning environments in adulthood.

After this short introduction to playful teaching and learning environments you can move on to have a closer look at the pedagogical model  that form the basis of the structure cutting across the different modules.