Playful Learning in Higher Education

The traditional paradigm holds that learning needs to be serious. If you’re having fun, you’re doing something wrong. Learning is meant to be hard work. It needs to be done in an orderly, disciplined fashion – the students silent as the lecturer speaks.
While there are some surprising exceptions, this is still the basis of most of the teaching happening in the world, and deeply entrenched in our way of thinking about learning. But is it true? Does serious learning require us to be serious?

role of play

Learning by using play shows us a different paradigm. Besides making us unhappy, orderly learning is often not conducive to learning at all. When things are just difficult and boring, learning is a slog and it tends to happen at a snail’s pace. On the other hand, with an element of play, it is exciting and fun, students have an intrinsic motivation to keep going until they reach their goal. Play motivates us to remember things and to learn.

Play allows us to measure ourselves against others and against our previous selves. We get spurred on by a higher score in a game. There is deep pleasure and great satisfaction in beating someone at a game, in having the right strategy and making the right decisions. Digital learning provides us with an extra dimension. When you fail in a game, you know you always have another chance. It encourages risk-taking and productive failure. Games are exciting and enjoyable in and of themselves, and bring us instant gratification. The learning that occurs while we play is a welcome bonus.

intellectual play

teaching it

This new kind of teaching is about organizing and facilitating play. Games have rules, and nobody minds that they do. Games are not free-for-alls, they are not chaos. Play happens within the structure of the rules of the game, games are highly regulated activities. The constraints are what makes games possible and exciting.

Someone needs to host the game – to prepare the field, to read out the rules, to keep time, to act as referee. What if teaching was all about letting that playful learning unfold – making it possible, acting as host and referee, and bringing out the qualities of curiosity, competition and desire in students? Wouldn’t that be a wonderful way to teach – and to learn?
We already have games that teach us about strategy and investing. Can we imagine and design games that teach us event management, or entrepreneurship or sports pedagogy?


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