Faced with a potentially dreary course on US organisational law, Roberto Corrada set his students to read Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. There were complaints, murmurings, a bit of truculence. Then came the project: to create all the policy needed to protect extinct animal parts. This covered wide-ranging aspects of organisational law – and earnest students initially resistant began to turn in 50, 100 pages on the topic. They were hooked.

This examples wonderfully illustrates the engagement, enthusiasm and creativity that playfulness can produce.


The benefits of fun in learning

The many positives that playfulness and fun brings to learning have been neatly summarised by Professors at Play Playbook editors Lisa Forbes and David Thomas (2023:5). Play:

• Enlivens and energises us
• Renews our sense of optimism
• Opens us to new possibilities
• Fosters learning, creativity, innovation
• Sustains and strengthens relationships
• Cures boredom and living in the mundane
• Increases productivity
• Increases one’s mood
• Diminishes self-consciousness
• Allows for fresh insights and perspectives
• Increases acquisition of new knowledge
• Makes new cognitive connections
• Teaches emotional intelligence
• Encourages flexibility, adaptability, and resilience


What’s not to like (as we say)? But the naysayers continue to worry that play, fun will diminish the seriousness of the academic endeavour, will deplete rigour and confuse professional boundaries. Alison James’ research for The Value of Play in Higher Education (a very playful book) suggests that ‘fear and negative perceptions about playful learning are its greatest obstacle’ (James, 2023:25).

She points out that play is already ‘embedded’ in some very big companies, such as Google, Facebook and Zappos, and a great many companies – Red Cross, Sony and Formula One for a start – are now seeing the benefits of Serious Lego. Companies cite ‘improved attitudes and motivation, strategic thinking and outcomes’ (James, 2023:66).


Barriers to making learning fun

Despite these benefits, the academic fears regarding fun and play remain. But according to Forbes and Thomas (2023:3):

Play does not take away from what needs to be taught and what needs to be learned. You can still teach the same things you’ve always taught. You can still be ‘rigorous’ and maintain high standards and expectations.

The participants in James’ study support this view: they see play as ‘fundamental to creating good connections and relationships and for fostering a positive and conducive learning environment’ (James, 2023: 25).

However, looking through the examples of playfulness in Forbes and Thomas, a snag emerges: some of us would rather crawl under a stone than enact them. Wearing a silly hat and dancing in front of the class? No, thank you. Forbes and Thomas (2023:26) say: ‘Being playful – you’re vulnerable but if you’re not prepared to be – why should your students think it is acceptable?’

Yes, hmm, but. Some of us would rather find other ways to show our vulnerability. Some of us won’t have the chutzpah for some of this – and we won’t thank learning designers for thrusting it on us.

Clearly, too, teachers need to be congruent with what they’re being asked to do – students will spot incongruence from a long way off, and they’ll probably be thinking, ‘Yuk’. It certainly won’t land well. For Forbes and Thomas (2023:26):

Being playful, genuine, and authentic is important because the power of play in learning is, in large part, created from establishing safe and trusting relationships within the classroom. From the safety of those relationships, students are freer and more confident to speak up, take risks, make mistakes, and freely engage in the learning. The stronger the relationships, the higher the buy-in and investment in the learning process which makes students more engaged and motivated to learn.

Students have reported some awkward moments where academics have not been able to pull off the fun factor. This may well be, among other reasons, because they didn’t believe sufficiently in what they were doing, but the students suggest it’s because it doesn’t fit into the departmental ethos: for playfulness to go well, there needs to be a whole-faculty commitment to it.


How learning designers can design for fun

If learning designers want to engage with fun and playfulness, they may first need to convince faculty. At the very least, we can consider James’ eight-point framework for play (p.328 of her book, which is online). And James’ own approach to fun? ‘I embody playfulness with others by my manner, with warmth, curiosity, outreach, a spot of gentle teasing, by treating my material with lighthearted seriousness and with a twinkle in my eye’ (cited in Forbes and Thomas, 2023:31).

Learning design can’t teach you how to do this, but maybe learning designers can create the conditions where such attitudes can flourish. Here are some suggestions:

Use sprints

Design a series of short sprints that require learners to make, share, iterate and make again. Breaking learning into a series of short sprints reduces learners’ tendency to procrastinate by creating a sense of urgency. This in turn makes learning fun, focuses learners’ attention, and helps them see just how much they can achieve in a short space of time.

Encourage collaborative learning

Design activities that promote teamwork, discussion, and group projects. Although collaborative learning activities can produce conflict, it is this energy that also makes them fun and memorable. Collaborative learning experiences not only make the process more enjoyable, they also develop students’ intercultural awareness, friendships and problem-solving skills.

Provide choice and autonomy

Offer learners some degree of control over their learning journey. Where possible, create a ‘choose your own adventure’ approach to learning where learners can choose topics that interest them, select from a variety of assignments, and decide on the pace of their learning. This autonomy empowers learners, improves engagement and can make the learning process more enjoyable and meaningful.

Incorporate game-based elements

Gamify the learning experience by adding elements like points, badges, leaderboards, and challenges. These game mechanics can motivate learners, create a sense of competition or achievement, and bring playfulness into the learning process. 

Use scenarios

Integrate narratives, case studies, or realistic scenarios into the learning activities. Using a scenario to frame a learning experience can make abstract concepts more relatable and engaging. Scenario-based learning engages learners’ emotions and helps them see more clearly why they are learning something, and how they might use it in different situations.



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Thank you to:

  • Ray Martin for her help with researching and preparing this article 

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