TVOP Project Information

The Value of Play in Higher Education: an investigation of play-based and playful approaches to learning in higher education, with specific interest in the teaching of management theory and concepts and value systems attached to play.

This information sheet offers an introduction to The Value of Play in HE research project. It has been produced for research participants and interested parties wanting to know about its aims and objectives. It includes information on

  • the background to the research
  • its aims and objectives
  • the project sponsor

Further information on the researcher, participant involvement, ethical considerations, collection and storage of data, timescale and project activities is also available by using the drop down links on this site.


The Value of Play in HE builds on recent scholarly activity in higher education exploring the use, value and perception of play. In January 2019 Dr Chrissi Nerantzi and I published an international edited collection The Power of Play in Higher Education: Creativity in Tertiary Learning, with Palgrave Macmillan. In it we, and our contributors, challenged a purely instrumentalist view of education and built on the empirical evidence emerging of the benefit of play practices at university. Our examples of practice were largely contributed from the UK, North America and parts of Europe; one of the goals of this research is to further find and disseminate examples from these countries and beyond.

Research into play in relation to childhood development and education is extensive and well established. Investigation of play in HE as territory for research, on the other hand,  is an emergent field. As a result of work undertaken by a small but growing number of interested parties, there has been an upsurge in interest in the UK in play as part of university study, not just for recreation. Play in this context is often deemed controversial, although increasing numbers of educators who adopt playful approaches find them enriching, engaging and effective and, therefore, legitimate.  My experience to date of exploring play as part of HE learning suggests that resistance to it exists because

  • where play is derided or dismissed this is often because it has been misunderstood;
  • this misunderstanding may relate to narrow interpretations of play
  • such narrowness overlooks that play can be notably nuanced and variable in form, purpose and conception
  • there is a lack of acceptance that play is valid as part of adult learning;
  • the work-play dualism that pervades Western society relegates play to a subordinate position in our lives compared to work

What do we mean by play in this research?

Definitions of play can vary and there is no single consensus as to what play means. For the purposes of this survey please use the following description as your guide. (Note as of May 26 2020: there are infinitely more (and competing) definitions of play, including its potential darker side, which are not referred to here. This is for reasons of brevity, and to allow participants to identify and voice any additional aspects of play which most resonate for them.)

Play is often referred to as being a pleasurable activity, freely chosen by the player, which may be solitary or communal, and which may take place within defined or special boundaries of time and space. It may be fantastical and imaginative, unstructured or rulebound, undertaken joyfully or seriously. It has infinite variety in its forms.

Common play types include  games, role play, sport and physical activity, imaginative fantasy, enactments and simulations (e.g. in other ‘worlds’), contests, festivals and celebrations (from the small to the large scale), theatre and dressing up and many other tasks, events or activities which are engaged in playfully. It may involve behaviours or acts which are unexpected, exaggerated, unusual or surreal, and out of step with what would be considered ‘normal’ or conventional in that context.

Where reference is made to playful learning in this survey it suggests a spirit of playfulness. Playfulness should be read as an approach or attitude, or “mood of frolicsomeness, lightheartedness, and wit” as Brian Sutton Smith defines it (The Ambiguity of Play, 1997, p147).  It may occur in situations where play itself is not being engaged in.

Who can take part?

Anyone who is using playbased or playful approaches to support learning in HE can contribute to this research. I don’t want to exclude anyone whose work is relevant. In Year 1 of the project,  Sept 2019-August 2020, there have been two formal routes to participating: an online survey (closing date September 2020) or a semi structured interview.

The interview phase is now closed, however if you have play practices that you wish to share – either your own or initiatives at your university – do please let me know about them and I will include information about them in anonymised form in my research outputs.

Note re the survey and your academic role:  in the survey where you are asked about your teaching you may be in academic lecturing or management roles. Where it asks about your support for learning you may be working with staff and students academic programmes e.g. as learning or study skills advisers, or equivalent. If you do not fit these categories please answer the questions and give as much contextual information as you can in the boxes provided.

Aims of research

With both the emergent nature of the field and the causes of resistance above in mind, the overarching aims of this research are to:

  • extend knowledge of the ways in which play and playful learning are used in higher education
  • focus particularly on business, management and leadership contexts in which management theories and concepts may be taught in play-based, playful or creative ways (or not)
  • deepen and extend understanding of the value systems in operation with regard to the adoption (or not) of play in different spheres; those of the lecturer, programme, discipline, institution, sector and national educational culture.

With regard to the third bullet, perceptions of value may vary according to all kinds of influences, among them the educational, cultural and personal. A key theoretical filter through which (3) is being explored is that of Sutton Smith’s Seven Rhetorics, set out in The Ambiguity of Play (1997). These were originally distilled with regard to play theory, whereas in this study their scope will be applied to play practices as well as to play theory. Many other play writers and proponents are also drawn on to provide a foundation for this research.

What is meant by management theories and concepts here?

Sutton Smith writes “…one notices marked differences between cultures in their kinds of play and in the amount of play (some cultures encourage play and some severely discourage it) and between individual players within any one culture.” (1997: 46)

So it is with all academic disciplines for all kinds of reasons. Whatever your experience or perceptions of play-based learning in any context, it will be very helpful if you can give as much detail as possible, in terms of what you do, why and how.

This is particularly relevant if you are responding about play-based approaches used to teach management theory and concepts. These topics, like play, are extensive, diverse and have many subcategories. They may also span business and leadership programmes in general and programme components in particular. They may also come from diverse, conflicting or contradictory schools of thought.

Management theories and concepts are likely to appear in, or relate to, models, frameworks, concepts, themes, issues, cultural practices and considerations, processes, operations, environments, technical and specialist functions and many other considerations relating to how people and organisations can work productively (or not).


Why is this study unique/important?

This study speaks to a fundamental pedagogic objective in higher education.  This is the desire to create valuable, engaging, effective and longlasting learning experiences for students and for their lecturers. It is unique in that ( to the researcher’s knowledge) it is the first to explore value systems in play practices, in particular using Sutton-Smith’s Rhetorics, in the context of adult learning at university. It is also the first to direct attention specifically at how play is, or is not used, for the teaching of management concepts and theories, and how this is influenced by such value systems.

Project outputs and outcomes

Data from project activities will be collated, considered, analysed and discussed in three main formal outputs:

  • A study of play practices in HE in a range of cultural and educational contexts, with specific focus on business, leadership and management
  • A review of Brian Sutton Smith’s Seven Rhetorics of Play, which will include a critical analysis of the interplay of value systems and a specific and new focus on HE
  • An outline of the research methodology and/or potential set of research tools to use when exploring play in university contexts

These will be made available through a range of online media, including the researcher’s own website and the archives of the Imagination Foundation Laboratory, if so desired by the project sponsor. In addition, anonymized and thematized data from project activities will also be drawn on for talks, workshop activities and other forms of dissemination in the UK and abroad.