Ponderings from #playlearn19

I’ve just come back from a short but wonderful visit to the Playful Learning Conference 2019 in Leicester; a torchbearing endeavour in the drive to normalise play in adult learning. This piece is mostly about that, with one or two tiny meanderings.

(But before I get stuck in, let’s celebrate one of a myriad indications that playfulness is already manifest in work, learning and society. Only this morning I was alerted to this fabulous Registrarism piece on university rankings. The use of tortoise racing and BINGO as a means of decision making is absolutely the way to go. And I love the idea of The Fortunate 500.)

Anyway, back to PL19.   It was a joyful and energetic experience, giving absolute permission to play and discuss play without risk, surrounded by believers. I was honoured to be asked to give the opening keynote and it was a career first. I can safely say I have never before dared start a talk to 120 people with stories of Scottie the dog (bag)’s travels round Dorset.

120 friends who are not dogs

Scottie about to make 120 friends who aren’t dogs

For me, Scottie’s adventures encapsulated inventive, silly, unplanned play which makes itself up and connects us to others. They also provided me with ‘alternative scenery’ against which to consider how we play and what we call play, while Scottie also became both play and player. For a prize I invited conference colleagues during my lecture to write me a story on a luggage label and attach it to Scottie’s lead, outlining what the next adventure would be. It is testament to their imagination and energy that I then had to spend my evening reading tales that were often witty, touching, concerned (did you even feed Scottie?) concerning (Scottie got abducted by a delegate and sent for reconditioning) and outrageous (never mind) in order to find a winner.

Scotties story tags from leicester

I will write more about Scottie and play elsewhere, but for now I mention my experiences with Scottie as an opener for some #playlearn19 thoughts while they are still vivid. They are a bit of a ramble, so I hope they make sense to people who were there as well as to anyone who was not.

I was sad to leave, not least there were so many reasons to stay and play. Among them ideas, adaptation, inspiration, connections, reflections, provocations, activities, amusement,  and above all a sense of fellowship –  about being with your tribe.

I’ll go through each of these in a sec.

There was no need to defend the use of play, playful or imaginative practices against accusations of triviality or a waste of time (ergo money) or of these things being somehow less than other activities in the academy. So energy was channelled without distraction into playful learning and in a spirit of relaxation and openness.

Ideas:I’m in awe of @zoewi’s endlessly creative ways to engender a playful culture through art and collaboration. She proved from the start that having large groups is not a barrier to playful activity with her playdoh conversation starter. Our tables all had different colours of playdoh, and in a few minutes we had to find partners from other tables with different colours of dough and create something along the theme of nature. I’ve used playdoh many times before but the simple adaptation of bringing people together for a simple collaboration in the space of 5 minutes was an excellent way to spark up the ideas. There was also plenty of…

Adaptation;not content with being confined to playdoh, groups around the room were appropriating other things – using broken pencils to structure models, or, in our case, grabbing some LEGO to make a bench to sit in our pond garden. Elsewhere Charlie Farley’s workshop transposed the Ketso approach from felt to paper to show how she had sought to normalise and strategise playful engagement in the Information Services department at the University of Edinburgh. Her use of an eclectic range of images was a reminder of how richly we respond to visual stimuli, and how diversely we interpret them.

paper ketso

the four branches of the tree of play, complete with enabling, hindering and resolving leaves

Inspiration: I thought we were doing well at nurturing a respect for, love of and willingness to play and create across my university, but Charlie’s work was an example of how to embed diverse opportunities for playfulness in digital and physical forms in and through her department. I also learned how to write diamante poems and dragged up from my memory how to play consequences (ignore the heteronormativity of this particular guide). I think the latter was probably better left under the radar as it can result in scandal, but the former were fascinating – either for being off the wall, or strangely coherent and affecting. Here’s one someone made earlier that I was kindly given…

diamante poem on play

On my travels around the rooms, coffee in hand, I also found leftovers from previous sessions. I scavenged a few visual metaphors sketched out to help students grapple with the structure of academic skills such as essay writing – one here I found later tweeted by Rachel Stead, while the bridge of understanding is by authors unknown – come forward whoever you are!

the bridge of understanding

rachel stead visual analogy for essays

Rachel’s (co?) authored campfire analogy

Connections:I overheard so many delegates start conversations with ‘Didn’t I meet you at the blabla event?’ swiftly followed by excited handwaving and voice raising once they both established where.  Somehow it seemed more bonding to have met at a previous play event than perhaps having seen each other at a ‘traditional’ conference (or TEF briefing?). Perhaps this speaks to the camaraderie that is shared by play enthusiasts? There were so many people I wanted to talk and did not manage to and endless hooks appearing between thoughts, and plans and practices. As I prepare to start my scholarship research on play, values and management teaching in HE (condensed version) I am aware that this is such rich territory – and so excited to be finding numerous people to explore it with it. Perhaps even in Australia, Stephen Dann?!

Connections can be off piste and tangential. They are all those ‘corollary conversations’ you have when you are in the middle of something and suddenly start riffing on an unrelated topic – like the pros and cons of Mrs Wordsmith’s vocabulary builder. Is this another way of adding pressure to schoolchildren in their leisure time, or a helpful addition to learning new words for disadvantaged children. (There’s a whole blogpost and then some in that one)

Reflections:for quieter play, taking the time to garden on Mars, with stickers and a giant coloured map of the terrain was a lovely way to move into the otherworldly (literally) protected space of play. It offered a visual and tactile activity, as so many play activities do, with rules and structure, but also freedom to then interpret and ‘garden’ where you want. It also gave me an experience through which I could reflect about how I make choices about what to do, where and what else these choices are coloured by. It was another reminder of the serendipitous and unplanned aspects of play; open ended and with no predefined outcome. It made me think that you could use such an activity for people to enjoy and then reflect on in terms of how they approach an experience, as well as just being able to freely play within its confines.

gardening on mars

Provocations:many of these come from outside the play community and are usually challenges to the validity of play – so less in evidence at PlayLearn19. Many other are ones running around inside my head and I am sifting and shaking them down to see what settles. They stem from repeat questions that I hear and that I ask myself sometimes; is this play? what is play? is what I do play? is playfulness ok in a uni curriculum but not play? how do play and creativity and imagination relate? I have often heard people say ‘I didn’t know I was playing, I was just being a good teacher’ – which leads us into fascinating perambulations around what good teaching is and when play is, or is not, part of it (but not right now).  If play, purely interpreted is partly about choosing to play freely, for fun and without specific purpose, can we honestly say we do it at university – given all the corralling and curating of the student experience that we do? If we are strict in our interpretation then the answer is probably no – or not at much as we would like. Many of our forms of play at Playful Learning and in our teaching/support activities can’t live up to these principles because we are playing with the confines of a curriculum or other structure/set of rules. What consoles me rather, is Brian Sutton Smith’s position on this:

This quote is far too dense to be unpicked here (he spent forty years researching and writing about play) but to me it speaks of the ability to mess with the edges of our definitions of play. Not least because voices in play literature are divided about what play is. Bateson and Martin argue that if play causes harm then it is no longer play. Sutton Smith contradicts this position by evoking the many times that play is dark, Machiavellian or harnesses the unpleasant behaviours of homo sapiens.

Activities – were too numerous to list, with some that were familiar and others less so. A point that was reiterated, and one that heartened me as I make it often myself, was that we all find our own kinds of play and are free to choose the ones we most enjoy, while having the chance to try those we never have. Mathias Poulsen illustrated this in describing a time when he had been persuaded to try performative play as part of a playful, public arts event. I winced in sympathy as he recounted how such play would normally make him feel so awkward and how he would try his best to avoid it. And then he was persuaded and found freedoms and pleasure in it that he had not anticipated. (He tells the story better than I do).

I have never been interested in video games but finally entered the world of digital play to test myself on aspects of biology. Not being a biologist but having great support I enjoyed fumbling with controls while also trying to keep up with what to do.  One of the mantras of the conference was about the value of failure and I felt I demonstrated this with honour. The many board games available in the lounge area were ones I had never come across, including one called Concept. With this you are wordless but use icons and cues to represent catchphrases, people and other things in an effort to help another play decode what you are thinking of. (I am unconvinced that Kate Middleton is a concept but I also did not read the instructions properly).  Its mixture of intrigue, frustration and brain-stretch helped feed an inner niggle that I have to bring game design into my teaching next year, in a way that will appeal to all players – not just those who love points, leaderboards and competition.

Amusement;silliness; naughtiness, physical activity, laughter, gamesmanship, irony, mockery, fun. Don’t need to explain.

Fellowship.This can obviously be manifested in any of the previous things, but there is a little more to add about connecting through conversations. I thoroughly enjoyed these moments including one with Mathias discussing the importance of imperfection in our lives and work. Sitting under the trees chatting we found we had this and other things in common, among them a belief in the value of responding to serendipity in life direction, as opposed to always having a strategy. It came to me just how much ‘being strategic’ is hammered home to us as having primary value – almost as if we can’t function without it – or shouldn’t. And yet how does this fit with the freedom and open-endness of play? Life is uncertain and strategies fail and change, while play helps us develop the ability to step into the unknown, adapt our navigation along the way but enjoy the route.

The biggest takeway (and I do hate that expression but here it is – clearly have no standards) for me from my brief visit to #playlearn19 was of an overwhelmingly feeling of generosity of spirit. As a speaker and fellow player I felt everyone involved in it contributed to a sense of community welcome, fun, relaxation, sharing and learning. While this can be the experience at other educational conferences I think entering a play space and what occurs within it is distinctive and something we need to protect and sustain. Well done Nic, Alex, Rosie and John for organising this for us all.