About five years ago Nicola Whitton and I sat down to rethink the academic conference, based on thinking of opposite approaches to many of the standard but no longer useful elements that we all accept grudgingly. Three examples:
- Why are almost all keynotes and panels composed of older white males?
- Why do we accept people standing in-front of slides, reading out what’s written on the screen as we all sit and listen?
- Why are sponsors more prominent than conference themes, ethos or the community?
We started applying our rethink to elements of existing conferences, and then decided to develop our own. Five years on, and we’re preparing for the fourth Playful Learning conference, at its new home in Leicester: still based firmly on that ethos of focussing on modern academic needs and ethics.
We’ve not been alone in that journey: indeed, none of this could have happened without a community of playful people who shared our ethos. From our first event manager who cut through a sea of corporate-ness to deliver what we needed, to our keynotes who embraced the playfulness, and our game makers and helpers who helped us to deliver engaging experiences, this has been a communal development.
We’re therefore delighted that we’ve been able to encourage and support members of this community to put down their practical experience, advice and reflections into a new manual of Playful Learning: Events and Activities to Engage Adults – just published by Routledge. In many cases, this is the first published work from these authors, and we’re immensely proud of what they’ve produced.
In the book you’ll find our ethos, based in play theory, but – more crucially – how that has been applied, experimented with, and delivered at a number of high and low profile events across education and business contexts. We’ve also included no less than 36 practical case studies, to provide examples for any context.
Buy, beg, borrow or steal a copy and start to think about how you could change your own events, teaching, workshops or other activities to be both engaging and more focussed on the needs of the participants.
I encountered Play14 thanks to two good friends of mine (Esther and Franc of Traico Projects) deciding to host an event in their home city of Barcelona. Here was a chance to (a) meet playful people from business, arts and education; (b) find out about the open Play14 ethos; and (c) get to explore Barcelona if time and space allowed.
Barcelona itself was in an edgy mood of course, but the people and demonstrations I encountered across the city were so friendly and curious to step into the unknown, that they set a great playful-yet-serious backdrop to the event. Play14 is based on the ‘open space’ unconference model, where participants propose sessions to create a programme each day, and then decide what they want to join in with. We were based in a fabulous space in the heart of Barcelona, just down from the stunning Sagrada Familia, with two large rooms and two small breakout spaces.
Play14 also has its own overriding ethos, which Yann Gensollen (one of the founders) was there to introduce – and this merged with the open space approach perfectly to create an open, sharing, curious and collaborative atmosphere.
Over the three days I collected many ideas for ice-breaking, team-building and reflective activities (littered between and in the session programme), explored the use of ‘escape’ games for student training, played and discussed The Ball Point Game (see it in action) for management training, used my touch and taste only to explore an alien world, and created shoe towers to harness creativity.
I also playtested a new game I’ve designed to test the effectiveness of group sizes from one to 16 working on a common aim: Tiny Epic Battles. It worked really well (with evil triumphing good both times in epic fashion), but what was brilliant was having several colleagues there who I could discuss the gameplay and approach with: and I’ll be following this up with one of them who saw potential for its use in behavioural psychology. More news on this in the coming months.
We became such a close knit team straight away, and so headed out together in the evenings for meals and more playful discussions: allowing me to get a good taste of the city too, and marvel at Gaudi’s contribution to the landscape. All in all it was a really useful and interesting trip, and I fulfilled all three of my aims. Thank you everyone at Play14, and particularly Esther, Franc and Yann for being such perfect playful hosts.