The Value of Play in HE: A Study. Free Book!

I am delighted to be able to share with you my free book and supporting documentation on The Value of Play in Higher Education (2019-2022)

This study was an investigation into play-based and playful approaches to learning in across all disciplines in higher education. It had specific interests strands relating to the teaching of management theory and concepts and value systems attached to play. You can download the book via the link at the bottom of this page, but in case you want to know a bit more about it first, here’s a quick introduction to its purpose and content.

In The Value of Play in HE: A Study I try to marry playful design and expression with scholarly intent. I draw on the input from participants in over 20 countries, 120 of whom filled out surveys and 65 of whom engaged in semi structured interviews. They came from over 70 different academic subject areas and helped generated over 300 different examples of play. I am indebted to them all, and to everyone else who contributed in some way.

With them (and you, dear possible reader) we go through the literature and practices of play in general and in HE in particular, illustrated with great numbers of vignettes of play, some visuals and plenty of discussion. I reflect on cultural difference and play, what gets in the way of play, what helps it thrive, and where playful HE can go to next. Oh and we look at survival, mental health and wellbeing while we are at it. It represents the culmination of three years talking, exploring, reading, playing, questioning, and saying hmmmmmm a lot.

In its 350 or so pages you will also find why and how I went about conducting the study, stories of how educators are championing the cause of play in HE while also wrestling with its challenges and contradictions. I muse on different theoretical positions on play, with particular attention paid to Brian Sutton-Smith’s Seven Rhetorics of Play. As a result, there is a whopping great reading list and plenty of embedded links if you want to travel down your own personal rabbit holes of enquiry. In it I play gently with academic conventions as I, and contributors, question why we do things the way we do in academia, and what might happen if we did things differently.

I Spy as a frame for the content of The Value of Play in HE

The text is made to be read as you would like – hop on, hop off, or in a straight line. I recognise that different readers will have different interests; you may want to read the whole thing, or skip some bits and pore over others. Whatever floats your boat.

I also close each chapter of the book with a set of reflections. This is because I see this book as the start or continuation of a conversation, with prompts for pondering; for your use with me, with others or with yourself. Here’s an example:

In addition to the main text I am also sharing below a few things which I could not incorporate into the book itself. These may mostly be of interest for anyone who likes knowing how the cogs turned, or what kinds of research tools were used, or who wants some extra info on aspects of the study. You can read the book without them however.

Photo by Laura Ockel on Unsplash

Writing this has been a labour; of love, of detection, of wall hitting and contradiction spotting, of a dawning realisation that play is both our own personal thing and also bigger than any of us. I have been so inspired by the ways educators are playing and how they approach their play. I admire their honesty and their integrity in their passion for teaching and as contributors to the futures their students are hoping to create. I appreciate their bluntness, critical evaluation and occasional protectionism when it comes to ensuring play is not mishandled or misunderstood in such a way that could undermine the quality of higher education learning.

Photo by Edo Nugroho on Unsplash

Through talking to them and writing this book I have been on my own journey as to what it I believe and understand about play in HE. That process is both part of the joy and privilege of scholarship and also a disconcerting experience of reappraisal. I think it was my dear friend and colleague Stephen Brookfield who once wrote that every ten years or so all his epistemological certainties come crashing down. And that is the mark of an open mind; of someone who is unafraid to look at what they are sure they know to see if new information and understanding means it is time for a change. I hope that The Value of Play in HE: A Study will offer a similar spur to thought.

All these resources may be freely used, with attribution, under the Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. You can find out more about this here.

If you would like me to talk to/for/at you about this study or any of my other work, please email me at

Citation for the main study account is:

James, A. (2022) The Use and Value of Play in HE: A Study. Independent scholarship supported by The Imagination Lab Foundation. Available online at

Please note:all links within the document were accurate at the time of publication (23/08/2022).

Design credits: Selin Soylu and Sila Sobaci: Selin’s Design Studio

The Value of Play in HE: A Study

Supporting Documentation

In the downloadable documents below you will find a selection of working documents. These include:

my original main gateway survey questions

a sample of responses from the gateway survey about play value

my student survey questions

my rough comparison of Sutton-Smith’s criteria for Rhetorics and their applicability in an HE context

my questions for semi-structured interviews.

In addition, you can have access to these three early documents, created at the start of the project. They relate to ethical considerations and consent, and my statement of researcher position and initial expectations.