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’ve added details of my most recent game, Tiny Epic Battles, to the Games section of this site.
A Tiny Epic Battle between good and evil
The Playful Learning Special Interest Group, that I co-chair with Nic Whitton, holds meetings each year in Spring and Autumn at different institutions around the UK. This allows existing and new members to join a meeting close to them, and also allows us to build on our thinking and ideas each time.
Last week we were hosted by Rosie Jones at the Open University’s Betty Boothroyd Library in Milton Keynes. Rosie has been a member of the SIG since its inception, and she and her talented team were the perfect hosts, preparing clever escape room challenges within the library for us when we arrived (thanks Cathy!).
We had our highest number of attendees, with 20 members (a good mix of veteran and new) traveling from around the country. Together we play-tested and discussed several new games and approaches from individual members (Amanda Hardy’s flexible Moodle Deck of learning design cards; Andy Walsh presented the work around using playful challenge cards with teams, that myself and Rosie have also been working on; and Katie Piatt crowdsourced questions from us for an upcoming sector chat about playful learning).
Ellie Hannan took us through a full session of her very clever SOTL game (see blog post from an earlier playtest) which increased our knowledge of research methodologies and saw us funding TV reality show research with dodgy ethics. We also helped Nic Whitton develop her very useful work around typologies of play, by looking at hundreds of images of activities to decide if they were playful or not.
The SOTL Game
On the final morning we asked the group to identify barriers against play in HE institutions, then set them up as small senior management teams (VC, Finance Director and VC Learning and Teaching) and tasked them with developing three institution-wide policies that would increase the capacity for play in staff and students. Some very interesting ideas emerged, including:
- Playful social spaces (including ballpools or other areas inviting free play)
- Email free hours each day or week / freeing up time
- Celebrating failure through institutional awards
- Removing a focus on metrics
- Creative and playful recruitment process to encourage innovative staff to embed playfulness
- 2 days a quarter for all staff to work on independent projects
- Playful elements in staff and student induction, to promote playful ways of working
- Playful facilitators (‘institutional jesters’)
Thanks to everyone who came and joined in the thinking, creating and play! The next live PLSIG meeting will be in May 2018, in Leicester.
If you’re interested in joining the SIG, see the Playful Learning Special Interest Group.