The Value of Play in HE

Where it all began

In September 2019 I embarked on a  project generously funded by the  Imagination Foundation Laboratory called The Value of Play in HE. Its remit has been – and still is – to do three main things:

  • extend exploration of the use of play in HE across the disciplines
  • investigate beliefs about the value of play in HE
  • pay special attention to the use of play in management education at university.

Back in 2019 I had hoped to travel widely; gathering data playfully and interactively, through workshops and the like. No prizes for guessing why that didn’t happen.


(Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash)

So instead I gathered data at a distance, using a ‘gateway’ survey to identify educators who are using play, to add to those I was aware of already. In addition I conducted 65 semi-structured interviews, some with survey respondents and others with educators with whom I came into contact through other means. The two activities were complementary and distinct, even though the core questions around use of play and perceptions of value had some commonality.

These activities ended up running semi-concurrently through 2020, and from September 2019 to the present I have also spoken at or participated in a range of conferences and events. At these I’ve been able to share emerging findings from the study as well as learn from attendees and fellow speakers about their own use and perception of play.

Consistently a word which has come up in feedback has been ‘inspiring’. This word, of course, does not apply to me – it applies to the richness of the experiences, practices and beliefs that have been shared by educators internationally. Their work and their voices inspire at at a time when they also express frustration and dismay about some of the educational systems within which they work. They are compelling about the multitude of ways in which play brings value to education in particular and life in general. They are candid about the barriers they can come across when trying to persuade others that playful approaches are every bit as acceptable, legitimate and effective as more familiar, time honoured ones. They also express many opposing viewpoints about the nature and value of play, and their own play preferences and choices. These are expressed as what I call polarities of play, and help illustrate and explain why it is so hard to reach consensus about play in HE.

. The photo below encapsulates the dualities in those views:)

comitragic wooden masks

I bought these dual expression masks on a whim. Fabulous or creepy? Can’t decide

One thing is certain: there is a vast amount of play going on – and no doubt far more than we are aware of. My clouds diagram below gives an idea of the variety of play types which are discussed and illustrated in three sections; across the disciplines, within management education in particular and for research purposes.

Types of play in HE

Broadbased types of play used by higher education educators, identified in this study

In the end I had to stop because it was getting too big. So there are omissions. Stuff has happened since I completed my gathering of data. But you have to draw a line. Now I hand it over in the hope that it will be of interest and of use to anyone interested in play in HE.