February 25, 2022

Can Higher Ed Classes be Playful? (English version)

Jimena Alviar, Fabián Dulcé, Paula García, Martha Ramirez, & Isabel Tejada-Sánchez

Guest authors

Welcome to this mini-series on playful learning in Higher Education settings! We are a team of 5 Colombian educators - you can read more about each of us at the end of this piece - who took the Let’s Play practicum (a Pedagogy of Play online mini-course) in 2021. Each week we will post a piece in English and Spanish on our thinking about playful learning. In this first post, we discuss what playful learning looks like for us by unpacking five playful strategies we implemented.

One of the most common misconceptions we have encountered in the higher education sector is the belief that playful strategies only apply to young learners. We have heard colleagues tell us that “adults don’t enjoy playful strategies," “learning shouldn’t be fun," “serious teaching requires a serious (non-playful approach)," and “teachers are not clowns." Sound familiar? Well, we have learned that having playful classes is highly appreciated by our students, regardless of their age and the subject matter. Their positive responses and feedback are what have kept us creative and willing to give playful learning the place it deserves in our classes. Moreover, research supporting playful learning in the higher education context asserts that it can take place organically (see Fenger p.58) and yet remain academically sound if we consider playful learning frameworks while designing our education experiences. Some of these frameworks can be: 1) understanding playful learning as a continuum (See Pyle & Danniels), and 2) knowing that there can be several indicators of playful learning in formal education settings (See Mardell, Solis & Bray).

To respond to this misconception about playful higher education settings, we made a list of all the activities and elements we have identified as playful in our own practices. Take a look at what we came up with.

Word Cloud that contains words related to playful learning in our contexts.

For this blog post, we will each share one strategy we have used in our classes. We’ll provide the learning objective as well as the context where it took place. We hope you find them useful!

Strategy 1 (Paula): Modeling brains with play dough

Learning objective: To comprehend the brain structures and their related function by creating a 3D representation using Play-doh and other available materials.  

Subject: Education programs at the undergraduate and master levels.

Using Play-doh connects us back through tactile perception with our creating and representing skills.  First, students review information (videos, audios, images, text) about specific brain structures and functions implicated in the learning process. Then, they work either individually or in pairs to create their own representations of the brain using Play-doh, paper, post its, glue, pencils, coffee stirrers, among other materials.

Brain modeling using play dough in higher education.

Strategy 2 (Jimena): Using Avatars to foster communication in the classroom!

Learning objective: To get to know classmates and build stronger relationships by asking yes/no questions related to people’s physical appearance and personalities.

Subject: Elementary English Class (Undergraduate English Language Teaching Program)

Using avatars seems to be a very fun way to engage students and motivate them to communicate and play with their partners. To play Guess Who: Avatars among us students must send their favorite picture of themselves with their authorization to share it with ONE of their classmates. Then, a partner is assigned to each of the students, whose avatar they will create. Afterwards, students create their classmate’s avatar and a short description of them. Finally, students present their slides and classmates take turns to ask yes/no questions until they discover the avatar’s secret identity!

Some of the avatars and descriptions to communicate among teaching students.

Strategy 3 (Fabian): Navigating complex challenges by playing seriously.

Learning Objective: To experiment, as a team, with a real-time confusing, ambiguous, and complex situation to illustrate the fundamentals of agile problem-solving contexts in engineering associated with the Cynefin framework and the Adaptive Leadership model for decision making.

Subject: Innovation, Leadership & Engineering Design (undergraduate elective course)

An activity used at undergraduate and masters engineering programs in which groups must work (and laugh) together to build a structure out of LEGO bricks. However, everyone has a secret role and a mission which makes the collaborative process more challenging and fun. It emphasizes group communication, conflict, cooperation, leadership dynamics, and problem-solving strategy for iterative and incremental product development.

Undergraduate teamwork while building a structure with LEGO bricks in an engineering course.

Strategy 4 (Martha): Sketchnoting

Learning objective: To synthesize understanding of a teaching approach through sketchnoting.

Subject: Didactics I (Masters program seminar)

Description: Sketchnoting consists of combining drawings and texts to take visual notes. Students engage with information on a deeper level as they apply visual thinking to synthesize it. Students choose a teaching approach of their preference, research it, sketchnote, and present it. An evaluation checklist with different criteria is provided, including making their sketchnotes self-explanatory. For the creation process, I provide examples of sketchnotes, layout ideas, and simple drawing guides. This is an enjoyable task that takes students out of their comfort zone while pushing and challenging them to think differently.

Sketchnoting examples from Master’s students in a Didactics class.

Strategy 5 (Isabel): Board Games

Subject: Growth Mindset to Transform Education (Continuing Ed Course)

Learning objective: To review key concepts and relate them with personal experiences.

Board games are popular and straightforward tools to engage students in playful learning. We have used them to foster deeper understanding and application of key concepts as well as to promote students’ leadership skills. Martha, Paula, and I, Isabel, co-created an online board game using Genially’s templates and called it Mind-o-poly. We decided to use this approach instead of a ‘final exam’ to help students wrap up their takeaways from the course. We first divided the board game into different sections corresponding to the content we covered, creating a variety of prompts that stirred reflections, conceptual revision, and discussions. We also included surprise elements, points, and collectibles. Finally, we gave it a look-and-feel that resembled the course experience.

Board Game: Mind-o-poly

In sum, playful learning can take place in the Higher Ed classroom in multiple ways. In our next series of posts, we will unpack the ways and indicators of playful learning that led us to these ideas. In the meantime, here are some food-for-thought questions for you:

Have you tried any of the previous strategies in your context?
Would you adapt any of these strategies in your playful classroom?
Would you share this blog post with a higher education professor who could be inspired by our experience?

Stay tuned for our next posts on this mini-series of Higher Ed playful learning!

About the authors:

Jimena Alviar is a proud and passionate English teacher who has devoted more than 10 years to exploring engaging and playful learning scenarios. Her curious and committed teaching spirit has allowed her to apply and navigate different teaching approaches with a varied range of students from preschool to higher education.

Fabián Dulcé is an edupreneur and a highly curious lifelong learner. Passionate about making things different in education; enjoys integrating game and lean-agile thinking to create innovative learning experiences. Since 2013 he’s been working in varied educational institutions in Colombia as a trainer, lecturer, researcher and consultant.

Paula García teaches future teachers at the School of Education at Universidad de Los Andes, Colombia. She has devoted her life to learning through a number of approaches, and found playful learning one of  the most challenging ways to make sure learning happens and stays.

Martha Ramirez is a teacher educator, academic consultant and researcher specialized in flipped learning and growth mindset. Throughout her teaching career, she has sought ways to teach outside the box: playful learning has been one of the key approaches she uses in every teaching scenario she can.

Isabel Tejada is a Professor at the School of Education at Los Andes University (Bogotá). She's a passionate and playful life-long learner, growth mindsetter, and intercultural educator.