Playing in a pandemic

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.

Screenshot 2020-07-09 at 11.16.11

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 –  https://www.bigmarker.com/dale-sidebottom/Play-as-Survival-with-Professor-Alison-James(you 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 ucdenver.edu 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 – https://dpu.au.dk/en/ektuelt/events. 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 https://open-tdm.au.dk/blogs/playuni/  and a collection of Voices of Playful Academia https://open-tdm.au.dk/blogs/playuni/conceptual-framework.

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.

The Value of Play in HE is live!

Anyone who has ever designed a survey will be familiar with the endless iterative scurryings and tweakings that go on as you create it. All the elements that seemed straightforward, clear and sensible (in your head) suddenly seem plagued by ambiguity, misleading semantics, technical trip-ups, ethical tigertraps, and general design grimness when you try to construct it.  You get to the point of wondering if you will ever be able to press launch.

But, dear reader, it has come to that point.

giphy

(see Note 2)

I am delighted to say that as of 2pm today my survey into experiences and perceptions of play and its value has gone live. Over the coming weeks my dream is for it to be distributed as far and wide as possible, so that I can add to the picture that has started to emerge of play practices in HE. I’m also so excited to see how its findings will contribute the ‘out and about’ phase of the project (April 20- April 21) when I’m going to be engaging in play related interviews, activities, workshops and events to take it all further.

Do please, if you can, fill it in, circulate it, spam it,  share appropriately, let me know if you think there are people I should be talking to that I don’t know about.  And THANK YOU.

Note 1: if you have not yet clicked on The Value of Play page to find out more info about this venture, do please click on the links and explore!

Note 2: Thank you Sassy Girl on Giphy https://giphy.com/gifs/sTagKs58YUj1S and Suzanne Faulkner – I have longed to find a reason to use this!

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

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Whoop! Hello research scholarship!

Happy news! I have recently been awarded a scholarship by the Imagination Lab Foundation in Switzerland, to continue my research into play.  This is a wonderful opportunity to be able to explore play practices in higher education through some particular filters and in specific contexts. Using Brian Sutton Smith’s Seven Rhetorics of Play as my research lens I will be looking at the ways in which play is currently being used in higher education to teaching management concepts and theories.

(I tried to find a good picture of management concepts etc to put in here but was in a hurry and just found lots of grim diagrams. So let’s have an entirely spurious picture of a cat in a tie, courtesy of alsointocats.com. Their caption is ‘middle management cat questions your productivity’ – so it is actually quite relevant )

businesscat-1024x640

This research aims to extend knowledge of the ways in which play and playful learning is used in business, management and leadership contexts in higher education, including institutional understandings of, and strategic commitment to play and playful learning as part of the tertiary experience. Through it, I hope also to challenge the instrumentalist view of education and build on the empirical evidence emerging of the benefit of play practices at university.

Sutton-Smith’s Rhetorics will provide a lens through which to investigate three value systems at work: those inherent within the forms of play adopted, those of the universities in which these take place, and those of the wider cultural systems in which the universities exist.

I am indebted to Professor Johan Roos and Dr Marco Weiss for their support in enabling me to conduct this research and am really excited about it. As I write down the words about it they all yell ‘this is HUGE’ at me – but it will be wonderful to get my teeth into the project. So I am starting to look for as many participants as I can with an interest in play, management and HE, who would like to contribute or be involved in some way. (More anon).

It will also feed nicely into the work I am engaging in at Winchester as institutional project lead for an OECD investigation into the teaching and fostering of creativity and critical thinking. Not only is this a fascinating area to explore, I also get to work closely with my fabulous and esteemed colleagues Professor Bill Lucas and Professor Paul Sowden. So much learning going on I think I need a cup of tea and a biscuit and a calm down.

What mushrooms teach me about university learning

This might sound a bit off-piste for an HE blog post but I promise it’s not an April Fool.

It’s just that this week sees the launch of the third Play and Creativity Festival at the University of Winchester and I have decided to combine one of my hobbies with a play session on HE. On Friday I will release into the wild a workshop on how rummaging around for fungi can help you reflect on learning. It’s got mushroom memorabilia, visuals, a quiz and all kinds of stuff going on (and I really hope it works).

Lost you yet? Read on and let me try and explain this a bit more.

My love of mushroom photo foraging (no picking, just pictures) stems from rides around the countryside on horseback. When you are lucky enough to be several feet off the ground in great natural locations you have the opportunity to spy a) into people’s gardens and b) over and under logs, trees, streams, walls, bushes, brambles and all. Such viewpoints give you a great glimpse into the unexpected – soft, gelatinous jellyear fungus or colourful corals on dying wood; firm, white clumps of mushrooms popping up in damp, shady places or bright, wavy shelves of colourful brackets jutting out from birch trunks. Their structures and ways of producing themselves so spectacularly and surprisingly – even in the most mundane of places – are wonderful and uplifting. They are fascinating and absorbing and invite you to know more, to observe their finest details, to differentiate between the myriad of types and variants that are found.

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Universities of the Future

This is a piece I wrote last week after an excellent visit to Bournemouth University to work with PG Cert students and staff on this theme. It seems very much in the air (the topic, not Bournemouth) at the moment as at our Play and Creativity Festival at Winchester next week we will be exploring the same question, but using cardboard, luggage labels, newspapers rod and all things sustainable.

https://microsites.bournemouth.ac.uk/cel/2019/03/25/building-the-university-of-the-future-lego-workshop/

 

 

Will this catch on?

I was asked this question last week about using LEGO to explore research. It came from someone new to LEGO SERIOUS PLAY so it should not have surprised me, but it did. And in welcome ways. I realise that we are making such progress with the acceptance of play as part of complex learning that I assume most people have caught up now. The question reminded me that many people are still unsure of its presence and impact in university contexts of all kinds.

The combo of LEGO and research has been very much on my mind recently… Continue reading

Fallen leaves, new leaves

burst

leaves on campus

I have finally had time to revive these pages and it has made me realised how abandoned my blog has been while I have been busy doing other things.

A bit like the glorious images you can find on Instagram here, just not as exotic…

It has rather been like tidying out the attic and realising both how much dust has gathered while you have been elsewhere, and also how much enjoyment the things in there have brought, even if they need a bit of a clean up.

So my resolution to self, having had my pages- polish- and- purge is to turn over a new leaf to keep these posts alive, rather than just writing in more formal locations, and update them with stories of the different activities I am involved in. This is as much for my benefit – to capture the learning and contacts and inspirations that I gather through my daily activities. So many questions and occurrences and so little time, and so important to make the space for those that matter… especially when we often spend parts of our working lives having to learn and remember things that are expedient but which we would rather not have to know.

At the moment my own learning and development is blissfully supported by Autumn, as it involves foraging for and identifying mushrooms and fungi. It is teaching me so many things that are analogous with our approaches to learning in formal settings (book in the offing!) but two for now are

  1. remember to look up as well as down

treetops frenshamEssential advice when we can get so anchored and overwhelmed in the attrition and uncertainty of some aspects of our higher education existence…

and

2) There is growth and newness to stimulate our curiosity and it’s been around us all the time. We just have not known how to notice itme holding tiny mushrooms on pine cone

my “selfie” mantra

I wrote this two years ago, around about the time of the start of the Brexit hoo hah and various other shocks to the collective system. As I’ve been reviving this site over the weekend I found that it had only been published privately. Strangely,  it has almost relentlessly resisted my attempts  to make it public after all – despite having been in hibernation all this time. This may be a sign – after all, I wrote it at a time when I had spent a great deal of energy supporting students in critical reflections of various kinds, and now I spend what energy I have left doing other things entirely. If it ever makes it out into the world I hope it is still useful and relevant.

In 2012 Stefan Collini asked the question “What are universities for?”; one seemingly answered in institutional mission statements, although how to espouse it and live it out is the challenging bit. It occurred to me, in the light of the last cataclysmic seven days in British politics, that the question is not necessarily what are universities for, but once we know what they are, can they function as they should? Who and what are we, in our roles as educators and professionals working within them? Will we be able to fulfil this role in the way we desire to or have done in the past? And as we try and work out what the answer might be to that in the face of extraordinary uncertainty and volatility we have another, more granular, curriculum-oriented question too. If we believe that higher education is about the growth of the whole person then how can we support students to develop their metacognitive and personal understanding as part of grappling with their subject.

As I mull over these questions I have come up with a “selfie mantra” that can be applied in whatever way you choose, to questions of learner and personal identity. In the light of my conversations with colleagues this week I have been pondering how it might be used to help students manifest their graduate attributes and do so in creative and multisensory ways (see the rest of this site for thoughts on that). What follows is a highly condensed version of that thinking – so apologies in advance to anyone looking for a highly theorised dissection of each element.

My mantra – for want of a better word – has four aspects, which are

SELF EVALUATION
SELF EFFICACY
SELF REGULATION
SELF REALISATION

Now you can very easily argue that these overlap in places or could be joined by any number of things starting with “self”; however they will do for now. (Less is more). While all have been extensive researched and/or written about in some form, I am using them currently as perspectives for developing awareness of ones identity and own learning.

Under self evaluation, which is something of a catch all term, I am thinking of the different ways a student might approach this, and how we can move away from the more familiar written models of retrospection. Engaging Imagination goes into this in plenty of detail so here I would like to offer two different illustrations which refocus consideration of self within a bigger issue. Now we know that reflection is always about something, so this is a nuance of this. One illustration  is Robert Nash’s work on Scholarly Personal Narrative, explained here, which combines intellectual analysis of personal perspective and lived experience with a bigger topic, theme or question. An example I have used this week is how someone living in a certain demographic, in a given geographic region, with a fixed political affiliation might answer the question post-Brexit “What is democracy?”. A second illustration  might be how we explore other complex questions through building, drawing or other means, such as “what is the state of higher education today in [insert relevant country] and what does this mean for me?”. By evaluating personal responses to these kinds of questions and experiences we have the chance to integrate thoughts of identity, values, place, role, knowledge and belief rather than itemise some of these things separately.

Self-efficacy as defined by Bandura and paraphrased crudely here is our perception of our ability to handle ourselves and the events that occur in our lives. For students this is often bound up in perceptions of success or failure, or personal confidence and self belief, or as the old saying goes:

Unpacking the extent to which self-doubt (there’s another one) has played a part in processes and outcomes of learning requires honesty and self-scrutiny (whoa – and another) which peer coaching as part of reflective engagement can support. Similarly building and sharing through LEGO or other media can evidence concerns, gaps or victories and how they played out.

Self- regulation is a broad term which more specifically should indicate self-regulated learning, or Zimmerman‘s work on how students adopt personally initiated ways to learn successfully. There is something faintly clunky and medical about the term (none of the self-pluses are particularly attractive words, however it sums up what is ideal and desirable in an independent learner.

Self-realisation, when you Google it, has all kinds of spiritual connotations attached to the term; while these may be important to an individual my take on it is much more pragmatic – being about individual capability to maximise and achieve potential or become who or what a person intends or desires.

These four aspects are shorthand for

A note on terms: while the “selfie” mantra is something that is easily understood I tend to use the different terms beginning with “self” sparingly to avoid any kind of jargon overload. good for students to know as referents, but better that they understand the spirit of what they mean so they don’t end up wanting to facepalm.

Head in Hands

#wearehere

Friday morning, July 1st, was damp, cool, slightly sticky. The train was crammed with passengers – no surprise there – jolting and swaying all the way to London. As I slipped my ticket into the barrier slot and came out onto the concourse at Waterloo I was conscious of a group forming a tableau. Its shape was blurred slightly by onlookers milling around it briefly, then dissipating into the haste of their onward travel. The group were World War 1 soldiers, alert, present, silent, making no eye contact, waiting for a train from a different time. Jostled by passing commuters I took a brief video, then a photo, then turned to leave. As I did so I noticed one, two, three soldiers, then more. And more. Grouped all around the station. Walking past singly, or in lines. I headed for the Tube, and as I descended the escalator a lone soldier handed a card to a traveller, with the name of a fallen comrade marked upon it. I felt stunned, emotional, dislocated by this strange presence from another world and time; feelings which increased as I walked through more groups, more lines, criss crossing through the passages of the Underground, focussed on their journey, detached and seemingly oblivious to the rest of us. As I headed along the moving walkway to the Jubilee line I heard first the tapping of boots stepping in unison, then saw a string of soldiers coming towards me.

wearehere

This image does little justice to the profound effect being among these other travellers had on me. It brought home in an embodied and visual way, right up close, the reality of the war, in a way no history book could have done. Most powerful was the way the soldiers were performing by being others, but not acting. The shock of their presence remained with me all day, something that I wished my family could have shared, not just seen in photographs later. At work I had to tell my colleagues what I had seen, frustrated (for them) that they had not shared in it too. That need to tell was part of a witness, a testimony, a not forgetting of the losses of 14-18 that were brought alive so strongly by this work of theatre, of art.

Alongside the thoughtfulness and emotion the soldiers inspired I found myself wondering “Who did this? And how did they manage to do orchestrate it in secrecy?” This sense of curiosity and fascination grew as I learned that the soldiers had not just been at Waterloo, they had been all over over the country, silently permeating our streets, shopping centres and everyday lives. #wearehere as the moniker for the commemoration was a stroke of genius in its simplicity, as it expressed reminder, yearning, memory, warning in three words. No better commemoration of the tragedy that was the Somme one hundred years ago.