Playing in a pandemic

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Hello! and Yikes. This is longer than I meant to be. But so much is going on with play that I wanted to share some thoughts, an update on my research, and publicise some great things other people are doing. So either hop through the bits you want, like the proverbial Spring bunny, or make a very LARGE [insert name of beverage of choice here] and sit down for the long haul.

STOP PRESS!  I’m delighted to be giving a talk for The Playful Intercultural Dialogues Series TODAY (Sept 10 2020). If you can’t join us you will be able to find out more on the Playful University Platform soon (see link to this below). UPDATE 11/09/2020 – sorry you missed it -but recordings coming soon to the Playful University Platform.which you should check out anyway…

Now…play in a pandemic…what we’ve been doing, and what we need to do to protect playful practices in teaching, learning, work and research…

Like most people, I’ve spent the last 5 months rethinking how to do stuff, not least how to conduct play research into The Value of Play which was supposed to be interactive and face to face and international. Instead of travelling the world to run playshops I’ve been sitting at computer. Like most people, I’ve Zoomed myself into a catatonic state, while also having inventive, unusual and rewarding meetings with new and old colleagues. Some people,  not like me, have been entrepreneurial as well as communicative.

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I have been dazzled by people how people cope with their endless online meetings: choosing a dress code,  having special lights or props handy, waving around seriously great teacups. My cat crashed at least three webinars, and during research interviews I met husbands, wives, children, and other pets (No. I know your family aren’t pets. Or are they? Possible essay title?).

Depending on the weather or time of day I have talked to people as they run round their gardens trying to find a signal, or have myself waved my phone in the air – Dom Joly style – trying to talk to someone in America. Whatever we call it, and however we recognise it, we have played our way through the pandemic. Not only that, but being “silly”  ( a word that my research participants have used  a lot , along with “mad”) as a matter of human wellbeing is now being endorsed in articles about play, such as this one.

Throughout lockdown, I was struck by how play featured consistently, darkly, lightly, humorously, bleakly. We have played to ward off our fears, steady our nerves, entertain ourselves, keep fit, connect with each other, cheer our neighbours, stay safe, keep calm and raise morale. Play has been not just a pastime, but a means of survival – something that I discussed in this webinar here – may have to register but it’s free to watch if you fancy it).

Some dressed in inflatable dinosaur outfits to shop; partly for protection, mostly no doubt for amusement. Others went running round their neighbourhoods dressed as Spiderman to cheer those shielding indoors, watching from windows. Play crept into our public service announcements,  sometimes with a shard of rage – as in this anti-litter campaign in York:

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Card, board and digital games were for life, not just for Christmas. If you had a stash of jigsaw puzzles you went from being an old fogey to an absolute winner; they, along with loo roll, compost and flour, swiftly became a rarity.  Pavements were chalked with hopscotch outlines and drawings thanking the NHS.   Rocks were painted, rainbows were drawn, windows were decorated, bunting hung out. Even our clapping for keyworkers on a Thursday night, accompanied by spoons on pans,  vuvuzelas and horn blowing from trains, was a form of play.

While some forms of play have sky rocketed in our broader lives, the upheaval in HE thanks to Covid 19 raised questions about how to safeguard playful, creative and interactive teaching. With virtually no notice educators were catapulted into transforming the format and medium of their courses. Since the crisis took shape conflicting views have been voiced as to what should be a priority for university learning.

Let’s start with the positive stuff. Play and imagination are deeply intertwined and mutually enhancing, even if the full impact of this is not always given credit in the context of HE. To address at least the visibility of one of these a special edition of Lifewide magazine dedicated to The Work of Imagination has been produced. Alongside  this work to deepen understanding of the imagination there have also been developments in play networking and ideas exchange. Through my research I’ve discovered that several universities are instituting their own internal play communities with the aim of enriching teaching. As we shift to online and ask ourselves what this means for play colleagues are setting up networks precisely to address this challenge. Here are just three examples.

In America, Lisa Forbes and David Thomas at have set up the international network Professors at Play to raise the profile of play in HE and connect teachers and researchers. (I’m also delighted that they have invited me to speak at their virtual Playposium on play on November 6th  – do join in!)

In the UK Andrew Walsh and Alex Moseley have just launched the Adult Play Network to bring together educators to share practice; branching out from their work in the Playful Learning Association Meanwhile, in Denmark, Rikke Toft Norgard and Henrik Hansen are organising a series of webinars on play – details here – as part of the the CHEF project The Playful University. I’m honoured to be presenting this one called Play to Connect on September 10, as I mentioned at the start of this post.  In addition, there is also the Playful University Platform (PUP), with videos  from 2019’s Playful University Conference in Aarhus  and a collection of Voices of Playful Academia

Challenges to playfulness and creativity

These are great to see. What is more depressing is the kind of conversation I have with academics who tell me that their institutions just want lecturers to upload materials to the VLE and to stop bothering with play and creativity.  For the sake of everyone in HE, we have to hope that the positivity of these networks prevails  One reason why is clearly expressed in the Durham Commission Report on Creativity and Education (2019)

Screenshot 2020-07-09 at 12.01.58While the Durham report is predominantly interested in schools, its point is entirely applicable to universities and no one in the HE play community needs convincing of it. Here, if you needed it, is the stark reminder why play has its place in HE.

It is supported by the views of participants in my data gathering for  The Value of Play in HE  So far I have had just over 100 respondents to my survey on play practices in HE (whooop thank you!) and carried out 57 interviews to explore these practices in greater depth. There are some fascinating poles and tensions emerging from my first attempts to code the data, as well as confirmation of the benefits and challenges of teaching playfully that many of us are already familiar with.  As soon as I have completed my first analytical trawl I will share more detail of these. For now, two of the repeat motifs coming through from this first coding are the importance of play for ‘humanness’ and connection within HE learning.  There are powerful statements about educator values, including a rejection of teaching to formulae and a desire to challenge dominant pressures and poor practices in teaching. In the choppy seas of a corona-shaped HE sector a key consideration will be how protect and support all of these.

Already as I go through interview transcripts I can see how things have changed from March to now, in terms of what academics thought they might need to do, to what they actually are having to do as they plan for the start of the new year. To help with some of this, Chrissi Nerantzi and I co presented a webinar for the SRHE in June 2020 called Getting Creative in Learning and Teaching in A Time of Crisis. In  it we shared a range of ideas about how to maintain engagement and connection online. Two of my research respondents were blunt about the need to avoid at all costs the tigertrap of trying to replicate practices, or lose the value that play and playfulness brings. One remarked how well her group had bonded through play pre-lockdown. When her university closed  in March she commented “I was like right,  I don’t wanna lose that, I don’t want to lose the playful aspect. There’s no way I’m just going to do a narrated powerpoint and given them a link to it – to me that’s not teaching and learning online anyway”. Another made a tart distinction between “quality online learning” (what he wants to provide) “not remote emergency teaching” (which he felt his university was resorting to in the panic of Covid). A third was blunter still. Interviewed early in lockdown he commented “Thank God for Covid, that’s all I’m gonna say. Up until five weeks ago the university believed that the best thing it could be was a 1970s residential university, minus the football team and the marching band. It was all about the on campus, those of us who were doing online were doing it by stealth”

Now, a number of people reading this may not recognise this view of the antediluvian institution, on the backfoot with tech. They will have been  delivering sophisticated online provision for many years and don’t understand what the fuss is about. I hear, however, many accounts of universities who  have been springboarded into embracing the digital after dragging their heels and did not have the resource, expertise or culture in place when suddenly it was most needed.  We now have to make sure that however we proceed as educators, coaches, developers, researchers,  and a myriad more roles, that we maximise the opportunities to play and connect on the Covid (semi/virtual) campus. My talk for the SRHE and today’s talk for PUP make a range of suggestions about how to do this. I’ve also just drafted an article arguing for a new or revived respect for the seriousness and validity of play in academic practice, drawing on emerging data from my research. In these and other talks it is clear from respondents that they see play as supporting their  values in reinvigorating tired thinking and practices, ensuring that no student gets left behind and is part of an ethical and social commitment to create a better world through education. In some cases this might feel like an act of rebellion against the values of the system:

“Sometimes I think my values as an educator do not fit the values of the HE Business these days, because my values are about enabling students to transform themselves and how they transform themselves is up to them…it’s not about can they get the best paying jobs so we can go up the ranking slightly, or do they even finish? What do students see as important? Who do they want to be afterwards? [My job is preparing students for] Inhabiting a future them…”(TVOP respondent)

Going forward we need to ensure that play in face-to-face, virtual or blended forms is encouraged, and that myths or misconceptions about play are dispelled through providing proper, open, fearless spaces to explore it. The ventures, groups, events and publications that are being created and supported are welcome steps in creating critical mass for play and playful learning as legitimate higher education practice.

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