Using playful engagement in teaching and learning

[This blog post is part of a series written for the Edinburgh Teaching Award (EdTA) to achieve accreditation as a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. ]

I blame it all on my mother. She was my preschool / kindergarten teacher you see, and this meant that I was provided with all the fun things at home as well as in school. Learning was always approached from a perspective of playfulness and I’ve brought this with me all throughout my own education and now into how I approach the education and training of others. Through a series of opportunities and projects across my career I’ve developed playful engagement as a specialisation.

Early on I found that by creating a lusory attitude or environment, staff and students were more willing to experiment and learn new technologies and skills with much less fear and apprehension. The term ‘lusory attitude’ was coined by Bernard Suits in 1978 (Salen, 2003, pp. 97–99) and refers to the mindset we enter in order to accept the arbitrary rules of a playful space in order to engage with play activities or thoughts.

When we play a game although we strive to achieve the win condition, it also creates a safe space where losing the game or forfeiting a prize can be experienced away from fear.  Fear of failure, fear of not being taken seriously, fear of your work not being ‘good enough’ is something that comes up again and again in Higher Education. I also find that providing learners with the opportunity to learn through making and creating allows engagement and encourages critical thought in actively applying the learning.

“Games give experiences meaning, they provide a set of boundaries within a ‘safe’ environment to explore, think and ‘try things out’.” (Kapp, 2012, p.xxi)

As I continued to incorporate playful engagement elements into my practices, colleagues and peers across the University sought out my help in incorporating playful approaches, technologies and tools into their practice. One of the most successful of these has been a collaboration with a Library colleague who approached me to help create and run a Board Game Jam in February 2016. A Game Jam is an organised event where a group of people gather with the intention of creating a full game – from conception to completion – in a pre-determined, short period of time.

The session uses the framework of small groups working together to create a game. To do so they need to identify licensed resources that they can use, and create a game that can then be openly licensed and shared online for further re-mixing and re-sharing.  The session was enthusiastically received and won the ‘Most Creative’ event award for that year’s Innovative Learning Week.

PG Design Informatics students Board Game Jam workshop 2017.

Demand for the Board Game Jam sessions has continued to grow, and I’ve provided sessions for LTW away days, EUSA Staff training, EUSA Peer Support Learning, PG Design Informatics, the online learning cohort for our Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice, the eLearning@ed forum (a forum for teaching and support staff with interest in electronic learning technologies), the Festival of Learning 2017, and at the Open Education Resources ALT conference in London 2017.

Documents, output, and further information on the Board Game Jam on Open.Ed

While I initially approached playfulness as a way to increase engagement with the learning technology tools and services I was providing, I’ve also found it to be incredibly valuable in creating a space where making mistakes, getting something wrong, or even failing, is encouraged.

As my profile has grown as someone who specialises and has developed a niche in using playful strategies and engagements with learning technologies and services, it provided new opportunities for career development. I was sent to the first Playful Learning conference in the UK held in 2016 to see if there were further avenues our Learning, Teaching, and Web Services division could incorporate. I took away a lot of valuable insights and ideas, including a greater understanding of how games and playfulness can be used to create a space where failing is acceptable and safe.

After attending the Playful Learning conference I’ve been able to develop an academic and pedagogical understanding of something that I’d been doing for a number of years. My practice is changing and I’m now beginning to gather measurable and reportable evidence of the impact of this approach in the activities and learning technology services that I provide.



Kapp, K.M., (2012), The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education, John Wiley & Sons,

Salen, K., Zimmerman, E., (2003), Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, MIT Press,

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