280. Professors at Play

Young children are innately curious and enjoy learning about their world. Our school systems, though, often take the fun out of learning. In this episode, Lisa Forbes and David Thomas join us to discuss how faculty can use playful activities to make learning fun for both students and instructors.

Lisa is an Assistant Clinical Professor in the Counseling Program at the University of Colorado Denver.  She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Registered Play Therapist. Her research focuses on intensive mothering practices, gender conformity, mental health, and play and fun in teaching and learning. David is the Executive Director of Online Programs at the University of Denver and Assistant Professor Attendant in the Department of Architecture at the University of Colorado Denver. His research focuses around fun, fun objects, and the meaning of play. He is the author of numerous columns and articles on video games and, with John Sharp as co-author, of Fun, Taste and Games. Lisa and David are the co-editors of The Professors at Play PlayBook, an anthology of almost 100 play techniques developed by over 65 professors.

Show Notes


John: Young children are innately curious and enjoy learning about their world. Our school systems, though, often take the fun out of learning. In this episode, we discuss how faculty can use playful activities to make learning fun for both students and instructors.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Our guests today are Lisa Forbes and David Thomas. Lisa is an Assistant Clinical Professor in the Counseling Program at the University of Colorado Denver. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Registered Play Therapist. Her research focuses on intensive mothering practices, gender conformity, mental health, and play and fun in teaching and learning. David is the Executive Director of Online Programs at the University of Denver and Assistant Professor Attendant in the Department of Architecture at the University of Colorado Denver. His research focuses around fun, fun objects, and the meaning of play. He is the author of numerous columns and articles on video games and, with John Sharp as co-author, of Fun, Taste and Games. Lisa and David are the co-editors of The Professors at Play PlayBook, an anthology of almost 100 play techniques developed by over 65 professors. Welcome.

David: Hey, thanks. Happy to be here.

Lisa: Yeah, we’re excited. Thanks for having us.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are: …Lisa, are you drinking tea?

Lisa: Not at this exact moment. But yesterday, I had a nice Earl Grey. I prefer the fruit note teas, but they tend to not have as much caffeine, so I go with heavier ones for that. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Fair. How about you, David?

David: I dug out some tea I got for Christmas. And so it’s a rooibos chai. And I’m drinking it out of my friend’s video game company mug. So I think that’s more playful.

Rebecca: I think it’s completely 100% appropriate for this episode. How are you, John?

John: I am drinking just a simple Twinings English breakfast tea, in a Tea for Teaching mug given to us by our former graduate student, who we very deeply miss.

Rebecca: And I have a highly caffeinated [LAUGHTER] Scottish Breakfast tea in my Pantone mug.

David: I like that. What color is your Pantone mug?

Rebecca: Number 630. It’s a nice teal color.

John:Iis that this year’s color?

Rebecca: No, this is from a dear friend with whom we like to design play. So it was gift from her.

John: So it’s topical. So we’ve invited you here to discuss the Professors at Play Playbook. How did you get started on this project?

Lisa: So we started professors at play in 2020. And we thought there were like three people interested in play and learning. So we started a listserv with them. I wrote an article and mentioned the listserv, and all of a sudden we have hundreds of people. And we found that over time, people kept saying, “Can you give us an example? Can you tell us what this looks like?” And David and I do play in our teaching, but we don’t think we’re like the end all, be all experts of this. So we thought, “Well, why don’t we ask our community to share a bunch of ideas and things they’re doing in the classroom, we can put it into a book and share that, because that might be more well rounded than just our ideas.” So we did that. We thought it was going to be this small thing, it blew up. It’s 250 pages. And it turned out really good. So I think it’s just something that we had been kind of asked for, and so we created it.

David: There’s something I want to add about the Playbook is when we started doing Professors at Play, we were really just trying to say to people, “Hey, it’s okay to play,” you know, just give people permission to play and share ideas and encourage each other. And we kept getting asked for techniques and techniques seemed to be the wrong end of the animal to eat. But I think, in retrospect, you realize it was like, we were a bunch of inventive chefs that were together, kind of trading ingredients and ideas. And there were a lot of people that were like, “That looks really cool. We don’t know how to cook.” And so people needed a cookbook. And so in a way, I think of the Playbook as almost like a Julia Child cookbook. Yes, it’s full of recipes. But the recipes are really there to help inspire your creativity, rather than just be like, “Here’s your meal plan for the next semester.” And I think that the book really helps to get to that through a lot of different ways.

Rebecca: Sometimes people don’t see what’s possible until they have some examples in front of them.

David: I think the thing that we wanted to really point out as important to us about the Playbook is it really isn’t prescriptive. It isn’t like “This is how you do play.” It really is meant to inspire people, to show examples, to get people to be like, “Hey, there’s a cool technique that I could maybe build upon, elaborate, or deconstruct in my own class.” And there’s a lot of content in the book that isn’t specific to techniques. There’s a lot of structure around: “How does play work? How does it function? Why is it functional? A little bit of the research.” So in that sense, it really is a book of inspiration, as much as it is a book of blueprints.

John: So it allows professors to be playful with the activities that are there. How did you find your contributors? You mentioned starting off with a small listserv, how did it expand to the level that it’s become?

Lisa: We started out with just a few people that we had heard of and had a meeting with just to see what they were doing. And then I wrote two articles for the Faculty Focus, and just mentioned our listserv and put information about how to sign up and it was like, over a week or two, hundreds of people kept coming out of the woodwork. Right now. I think we have like 750 members of our listserv. So I think that’s kind of the initial burst. And then I think word of mouth. We get a lot of people saying I heard about this from a colleague or this was mentioned in a conference I just went to. So it’s slowly getting out there. there, but there’s way more people interested in this than we initially thought, we thought we were like the only ones or not. There’s people that have been doing this. But I think we’ve just found a way to connect people.

David: And when we wanted to do the playbook, all we did is just ask that community, “Hey, send us your techniques.” And honestly, if we would have kept the call open longer, the book would have been longer, that’s all.

Rebecca: I’m curious about the wide range of disciplines represented, not only by the two editors, but also by the contributors. Can you talk a little bit about what you discovered about how many different kinds of people from different disciplines are involved?

Lisa: Well, I think that’s a common question is like, “Oh, playful pedagogy. That’s cool for like, elementary ed teachers, but I teach a serious discipline. I teach law, I teach medical students, I teach mental health counseling, it’s too serious for play.” But we have people from, I don’t know how many different disciplines, mental health counseling, dentistry, medical teachers, law teachers, just from everywhere. So I love that there’s such an eclectic collection, because people can see, “Oh, you can do this in any discipline, and it’s not just for the people who already are allowed to have fun in their classes anyway, because it’s not as serious as mine.” So I think that’s one of the big strengths.

David: Yeah, play isn’t just for art teachers.

John: What could be more fun than just learning economics with all those graphs and equations and things.

Lisa: A lot of things. [LAUGHTER]

John: Oddly enough, some students would tend to agree with that.

David: Exactly. The medical profession… I mean you have some stuff in there from some nursing faculty, some stuff in there from veterinarian science. And I love that. I mean, these are literally people that work in life and death, and they have room for play. So come on economics, come on, engineers, loosen up a little bit.

Rebecca: One of the things that I always think about related to play is it’s highly tied to creativity, and moving our disciplines, if we’re not kind of playing with the ideas within our disciplines, we kind of stay stagnant. I know I’ve recently had a lot of conversations with my students who are in design, someplace where you would think creativity is flourishing, and play would be flourishing, but it isn’t always, and sometimes they feel really stagnated in their creative ideas and don’t have strategies for getting there. And the one thing that we’ve been talking about in the first few weeks of the semester is finding room for play and being playful around what they’re doing. They’re not resistant to the idea of play, but they haven’t gone there on their own, because they’re so afraid of being perfect all the time, or needing to be perfect. What has motivated, in your conversations through your listserv and things, for people to kind of move towards play.

David: I think there’s two things really, in my mind, and I’ll talk about one and then Lisa is the expert on the other. The first thing is that I think people move toward play because it’s just delightful. The idea of not doing another lecture, the idea of your students not looking at their phones, the idea of not reading another rote term paper or reviewing another rote studio assignment, it turns you on as a teacher. And so, sometimes just to mix up your own life, you just do it because you want to be playful. And I think that that’s probably the purest and most wonderful motivating factor to become a professor of play, but then I’d hand it over to Lisa, because she’s done some very excellent research in unlocking the underlying educational and psychological factors that actually anchor play in all of learning science. And so Lisa, if you could pick that up.

Lisa: Well, I think you’re talking about the process that ensues when you use play in learning. So I’ll talk about that. But also, I want to go back to challenging status quos. I think play does that really well. So I’ll say those two things remind me if I forget the other one. So I did some research on students’ experiences of play and learning. And what I gathered was, when there’s play, there’s joy, excitement, laughter. When those things happen, there’s a sense of relational safety in the room. And so people get connected, they feel a sense of belonging, they feel safe. trust develops. At the same time, it reduces students’ barriers to learning. So they come in stressed about the class or just they had a stressful day, they have fear in learning, they feel like they have to be perfect. And so when play is involved, it takes people’s defenses down. And then when that happens, people are more willing to be engaged. And so they’re invested in the process, they feel connected, they’ll engage in the learning, and they’ll take risks. You can give more critical feedback, actually, when you have that positive relationship. They don’t feel as tense or like, “Oh, I have to get it right. I can’t mess up.” It’s just like a more level environment when play is involved and play is hands on. And so they’re doing instead of listening and taking notes. And so they said, as a result of that, their learning was more memorable, personal, engaging. So it’s just this really powerful process that happens. The other thing, I think, is traditional education from K to graduate school is very rigid, I think overly rigid, overly serious sometimes. It creates fear, there’s hierarchy. Students are doing things to earn a grade, to not fail, and it If we look at what our students are going into into their professions, it doesn’t match. What we’re having students do in higher education isn’t developing, a lot of times, the skills they need in their profession. So like I’m mental health counseling, if I lecture at my students, they have to memorize information, take multiple choice exams, write APA style essays. That doesn’t help them in their career. And so I think play is a way to challenge some of those status quos, and think about doing things differently, more effectively, more in line with what people will be doing. And I think that piece you were talking about earlier is like the creativity. If we let people try things and mess up and fail and play, we’re going to be more creative. And when we’re more creative, we’re going to be more effective in our jobs, in the future careers. So I think a lot of ways in higher education, we’re doing our students a disservice. And so I think play is a way to challenge that.

David: So, to wrap it up, so why play? Thing one is because it’s fun. Thing two, is because it’s effective. What more do you need?

Rebecca: It’s a great summary. [LAUGHTER]

John: Do students ever come with some resistance, expecting to be lectured at and expecting those multiple choice exams, and not quite comfortable with an environment where they place themselves more at risk?

Lisa: Absolutely. In my study, I looked at students’ experiences. They said that exactly. I did like a pre-journal and then a post-. And in their pre-journals, they’re like, “Yeah, I’m skeptical. I don’t like this play thing in graduate student learning. How are you going to get students up and playing? I’m not sure.” And then their post journals were like, “Yeah, I was skeptical. But actually, I learned more than I did in other classes, or this was way more engaging.” So I think there is some resistance at first, just because, if you think about from, unfortunately, kindergarten through graduate school, they’re told: “Sit and listen, take these tests. I’m the expert here teaching you what you need to know.” And so their brains are just not formed in a way to be comfortable with that. It’s actually easier just to sit and listen and take notes, but I don’t think you learn as well. So I’ve seen a lot of student resistance. But once they do it, they realize how fun it is and how connected they feel, and how much more they learned. So I think they get bought in. But at the start of every semester, I have to say to people, “Hey, I use a playful pedagogy. Here’s what that means. Here’s why I do it. So expect this.” So I think just giving them a little bit of autonomy and understanding of what you’re getting into has helped.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit Lisa, I heard you mentioned graduate education, mental health counseling, and I can imagine many skeptical individuals, not just the students in your class… can you help us understand what that looks like in your classroom, just to demonstrate how play can be in a lot of spaces.

Lisa: Right, so I use play in different ways. And in our book, we talk about this pyramid of play. So me, myself, am playful. And so I’m not this overly serious, rigid, intimidat…. well, some people think I’m intimidating, but I don’t get that. But I’m playful, and I’m human. And so I think that’s part of it, is just creating a warm, safe, comfortable environment for people drops their defenses, they’re more connected. The other part of it is icebreakers, we call them connection formers, even when they have no relation to the learning, we’ll do some silly thing at the start of class. And the whole point is to reduce defenses, get people laughing, get those positive neurotransmitters in their brains firing, because that sets the stage and creates a certain environment for the learning to take place. So I think a lot of people don’t do those silly things at the start of class. And it can be three minutes or 15 minutes. But I really do those things for a purpose. And then the other part of it is bringing play elements of games and game design into my teaching. And so there’s a book called Giraffes Can’t Dance. That’s about Gerald and he’s a Giraffe and he can’t dance like the other African animals. And he gets made fun of and he thinks he’s a clot and can’t do anything. Right. So this is a perfect mental health case study. So I read the students this children’s book, like adult students, like 30 year olds, and then I created a client profile based on real facts about giraffes, about why they would need counseling. And so like it’s novel, it’s more playful, students engage more, because it’s not the expected, like they expect Sally Jo, client, and so they engage more. But also, that’s not real. Nobody’s ever counseled a giraffe before. So it allows them to step outside reality and have less pressure and like the right way to do it and think more creatively. So it’s still learning everything they need to learn. They apply their theoretical lenses, they create a treatment plan for this client. So it’s fun and playful, but it’s also in line with real learning what they need to do. So there’s a lot of examples of what I do. We do games, instead of giving them this handout fully completed. I give them the handout blank, and then they have to fill it in. And it’s a game and they have eight minutes to do it. And they’re racing against each other, racing against the clock. So there’s a lot of different ways that you could teach content, just in a more playful way, rather than like, “I’m going to lecture 300 slides at you in three hours,” …and they’re bored out of their minds. So there’s just so many different ways.

John: This reminds me a little bit about a podcast episode we had, it was one of our early ones. And it was about Rebecca’s use of a similar situation in her class that involved the three little pigs. And for a long time, it was our most popular episode. And there was very little discussion of the Three Little Pigs. But I could imagine people seeing this thing pop up on a podcast list and playing it with their kids while they were driving to some destination and being very disappointed in what was actually discussed, although it was very interesting material…

Rebecca: Yeah, I was like, “Thanks, John.” [LAUGHTER]

John: … it might not appeal very well, to a three-year old, let’s say. You mentioned connection-forming or icebreaker activities, Could either of you give us an example of a connection-forming activity that you might use to help get the class started.

David: I can throw one out, it’s so, so simple. And it’s something that I did over Zoom with a bunch of architecture students and it’s kind of a weekend or whatever, and there’s a little web game called Draw a Perfect Circle, and you use your mouse when you try to draw a circle, and it scores you. So I get a Zoom room full of architecture students trying to draw a perfect circle, which is almost impossible to do under the best of circumstances, and I make them turn their mics on, and the shouts of joy and the cries of frustration, it’s so freakin’ funny. And it really is a connection former, it’s kinda like the class succeeding and failing together. And it’s absurd. And I bring that up, because it’s so low effort: go to this website, play this game for a minute. Oh, by the way, I’m going to give a prize to whoever gets the highest score. Easy as can be, achieve everything Lisa was talking about in the value of a connection former.

Lisa: Yeah, there’s those ones that take two minutes, three minutes. So if you have a ton of content, you can still do something playful at the start of class. I made one called wacky questions, and I came up with various wacky questions, I put them on note cards, put them all facedown on a desk. And then I pass out sticky hands, you know, those children’s toys, it’s like a hand with a long string. I pass those out. And one by one, they have to come up to the front of the room and take their sticky hand and slap a card. And whatever one comes back on the sticky hand, they have to read an answer in front of the class. And the questions are like, “Name everything you’ve done in a sink. [LAUGHTER] Create a rant about why carrots make no sense. If you could send a subliminal message to all the squirrels at once, what would the message be and describe the scene of the aftermath?” …like things that are just silly, wacky, but students are laughing so hard. And it’s a way to kind of get to know each other because they also introduce themselves, and just start class with something fun. And then people are more relaxed to get into it. Our book has a ton of examples of this. But those are just a couple.

Rebecca: So, the other day in my class, we did the equivalent of refrigerator poetry, [LAUGHTER] just virtually, but they all contributed words, and then we had to use the words that other people contributed.

David: That’s great. Yeah, it’s just anything playful. I mean, this is where, again, we would go back to the idea that the playbook, it is recipes, but they’re all deconstructible. I mean, you find something that sounds funny and give it a try. And connection formers are the gateway drug to classroom play, because they’re easy. I mean, people kind of know, “Oh, we can do something fun at the beginning of class.” They kind of tolerate things that don’t work as well. But here’s the best part, last summer, I was teaching a class twice a week, eight weeks, and I don’t know, around week five, or whatever, I’m probably running out of steam. And I forgot to do the opening connection former. And I start to lecture and the students are like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, where’s our fun activity?” They were not allowing me to start class without doing something playful. And they had never, up until that point, expressed an opinion pro or con about it. But in fact, they love these things. And so they held me accountable, which was awesome.

Rebecca: So that’s on the small scale. Now, if we think about the opposite scale, like with course design, can you talk about some ways that people have been playful about course design?

David: One that we mention in the book, and was the speaker at one of our early playposiums. There’s a professor at my university, University of Denver, Roberto Corrada. And Roberto teaches organizational law. And it’s basically the administration of governmental entities and the creation of administrative law that goes with that. I can’t imagine there’s a more dry subject. So Roberto decided many years ago that he would teach the class at least sometimes this way, the first day of class, he assigns them Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, the book. They must read the book, whether they want to or not, and then the remainder of the class is that they have to write policy on the regulation of extinct animal parts. And now, all of a sudden I’m in, I’m so interested. He says this touches every aspect of law, OSHA, international trade law, and I’m like, “That’s brilliant. It’s just brilliant.” So that has become one of our go to cases because it’s an area that sounds boring. It’s in an area that sounds that it couldn’t be playful. And it was just done so comprehensively. And his reports are some of the students are very resistant to it at first, because they’re serious law students. He says by the end of it, they’re turning in 40, 50, 100 Page legal briefs on the regulation of extinct animal parks.

Rebecca: That sounds really fun.

David: It does. It’s the word.

Rebecca: I’m in.

David: It’s fun.

John: I could imagine some professors not really being all that comfortable doing this. Are there some professors where this might not work as well?

Lisa: Yeah, I think for a lot of reasons, I think personal comfort, personal preference, personal tastes , some people are just more serious than others, like, I’m not a very serious person. So when I entered academia, I’m like, “I’m not gonna last here, I don’t like being this type of person.” So once I figured out learning could be more playful, and I can be more playful, it aligned with who I am. But I know not all people are playful at their nature, in their core. So I think there’s part of that, I think it’s like certain identities that we hold, some are allowed to be more playful than others, like I’m a younger, female, non tenure-track professor, so it would be different for a potentially older white male who’s tenured, like, there’s more leeway, I think, for that person to try some of these things in their teaching. Whereas for me, it might feel a little more risky, because people generally don’t take me as seriously anyway. I don’t have tenure. I’m not on a tenure track right now. So I think there’s some of that that contributes to it. And I think it’s like our societal norms of adulthood, and academia. You’re a serious adult, you should be serious. So I think if somebody’s inclined to be playful, and they’re going to get into this, it’s really challenging some of those norms and status quos and trying something that maybe is against what you’ve been told you should be or how you should teach. So I do think it’s a exercise in creativity, but also rebellion at times. And the thing is, we all don’t have to be the same playful professor, it’s going to look different. There’s gonna be different levels. Maybe you do an icebreaker, but then you go into your usual teaching, Roberto designed his whole course on this premise of play. So I think there’s different ways it can look, which I think is good, not everyone has to do it the same way.

David: And I’d flip that question a little bit and say, “There’s so much learning science that would say there’s so many great ways to teach. Why do we still have professors walking in lecturing and doing multiple choice exams?” The answer is status quo. The answer is lazy. The answer is bad incentives. The answer is black, shriveled hearts. I don’t know. When we talk about play as being kind of a playvolution or revolution or rebellion, we’re not just talking about play. We’re talking about re-energizing teaching, making learning fun and exciting, but making teaching fun and exciting again, and honestly, I love seeing students light up. But more and more, what really gets me excited is watching professors get engaged in this approach, and coming back and being so excited again, about their teaching. And to me, it starts there, because an excited teacher is a blessing to students. And so it’s not just techniques. It’s not just some sort of like, hey, let’s put on party hats and be silly. It’s about falling back in love with teaching.

Lisa: And I was like, I’m not going to be in this job very long, because it doesn’t align with me until I started doing playful pedagogy. And people will say, “Well, doesn’t that take a lot of time?” And I’m like, “Yes, but it’s more fun, and then it makes me eager to plan the next class.” Like I recorded myself as a Martian. And I gave my students this Martian mission. And they had to like put their self in a different perspective and come back and give me a two to three sentence theory about whatever we were learning that day. And that video took me a couple hours to create, it would have been easier just to type discussion questions on a piece of paper. But it was so much fun creating the video, I was cracking up the whole time. When I show it to students, I’m laughing while it’s playing. Because I have kids at home and they show their friends this video. They think it’s so funny. So it’s just more joyful. I think for the longevity of my career… sure, some of this stuff takes more time… but I’m going to enjoy what I’m doing more, and that’s worth it to me.

Rebecca: Before we started recording, we were having a conversation about wanting to make sure it’s fun for you first as an instructor, and I was sharing that we had done some of these really playful things in my department over time, and they’ve just fizzled out over time, in part because of various demands on our time. And I think maybe it just became more of a status quo, because we were doing it and then it’s like, “Okay, now we need to come up with a new way to have fun or new fun.”

David: And that’s where we would suggest strongly you’d need a cohort of playful professors. You need a play buddy. You basically need someone to be like “You’re not having enough fun.” You need someone to bounce ideas off of. You need someone to tell you your terrible ideas aren’t as terrible as you think they are. And it is tough because, left to your own devices, sooner or later, you’re late for work, the coffee’s weak, you just want to get through the day. Hello lecture, my old friend, you know, but we’re trying to say that’s really not a way to lead a life as a teacher.

Lisa: Yeah, I think that’s key, is the social support, having playful people that you can brainstorm with, bounce ideas off. David’s my playful person. And so I have an idea for class and I tell him about it, like the wacky questions one I told you about the sticky hands, I told him about this idea and I went into class and I was getting all sweaty, because I was nervous to do it… like this was when I was just starting playful pedagogy. And I’m like, the students are gonna hate it, it’s gonna go awful, it’s gonna be weird. And then I was like, I just won’t do it. And then I was in my head, I’m like, David’s going to ask me, after this class, how it went, so I have to do it. So I did it, it went amazing. But without him as my playful person, or I don’t know, he keeps me honest about what I’m doing and making sure I’m doing it, I think I’m more likely to keep doing it. So without him, I’d probably just fall back into old ways.

John: We know that students don’t spend a lot of time reading textbooks and so forth outside of class. And they don’t really spend a lot of time working through taking practice quizzes and such things. But it’s pretty easy to observe people spending hours, days, or weeks working through various games that have the same sort of elements we’d like to build into our teaching. How does this affect student motivation to learn?

Lisa: Well, I think like I described earlier, if you’re a human, you make class fun, engaging, connected, a sense of belonging, they’re going to be more motivated anyway, they feel more connected to you and just eager to, not please you, but just more responsible with their work, I would say. So I think there’s that relational part of it. But also, my students know, you’re not just gonna sit back and listen and take notes. I’m not lecturing on the reading you were supposed to do last night. And so when they do have reading, they know that we’re going to do something in class with that, and they’re going to be involved in a game or a discussion. And so as far as I know, my students seem to be doing the work outside of class, coming in prepared, and then doing more active things in class, I think, just teaches them a different way. They’re learning on a more deeper level. So I don’t know, I think the relationship and then just the expectation that you’re not sitting and listening gets people doing their work. And I think it’s more fun. So instead of like four APA style papers for assignments, we do one because I think you need to know APA. But then the other assignments I make more creative, like one I made into an escape room. And another they do a blog post, so they have to be really concise with their knowledge. I offered one like you can turn this paper into something creative. So somebody did a podcast. So they turned all the elements of the paper into a discussion with a peer and turned in this podcast. And they were like this took me probably three times longer than a paper would have. But it was so much more fun. I learned way more. So, I don’t know, they just see more bought in.

David: And I think something implied in what Lisa’s saying is play is awesome and it unlocks so many things. But it also rests upon other good pedagogies, diverse assignments, engaged classroom around giving you a reason to do the readings. So I think play builds on that. The secret power of play, though, is that connecting stuff. It’s like I can say I’m going to call on you in class, and students just feel like all they have to do is get it right and to not be embarrassed. That’s one level of engagement. But if students are coming because they want to show off the cool, creative answer that they gave, now, they’re just invested in it. So it’s like I’ve taken that floor of engagement, and I’ve raised the roof on it. And I’ve seen this over and over again. I mean, we all know group work is excellent. Students hate group work. Well, if you give people a very playful group assignment, they’re very excited to get in there and present. And they want their group to win the prize of the laughs or whatever. And it’s just a game changer. Funs like pouring gasoline on the fire… actually, the fire needs to be there but it gets big fast.

Rebecca: I’m curious as you were collecting examples, if there was an example that stuck with you, that impacted you that was completely out of your discipline, seems completely wacky, but it just sparked something in you.

Lisa: I think for me, it’s that whole course design, the Jurassic Park class, it just is so inspiring to me to think like throw out all the rules of what we think is a normal class, and just redesign it based on play and give up total control. So he’s not lecturing every class, students are engaging and learning what they need to learn through active learning. So I think that’s really inspiring. I haven’t figured out how to do that yet in my classes. Mike Montague. He’s one of our play pals. He submitted this thing that he does with students. It’s like a game show. It’s like three stages of a game show where you announce the game as like a game show host and then you have infomercials… you record your own infomercials and like “Now a word from our sponsor.” And then there’s three sections where students have to come up with different things or use creativity to solve a problem. And then “Another word from our sponsor.” And so it’s just this really engaging, playful thing that you can do to liven up teaching. So I did that. And I made infomercials, one on microwaves: “It’s a cold day and you need something warm to drink. Now there’s a better way… a microwave.” And then one I did about cats cleaning themselves with their tongues… instead of showering, here’s a new way, you just lick yourself.” And so it was just like so fun to create those infomercials from our sponsors. So that one was fun. There’s just so many good ideas in there.

John: David, what are some examples of play techniques that you found really interesting

David: A technique that showed up in the book, it was from a professor, she’s a Spanish teacher, and Julie did a magic trick. And funny thing is, I remember what she was trying to teach, but I’m a huge fan of magic. I’ve never ever done a magic trick in a class. And here’s this Spanish teacher tell us she’s not really much of a magic person. And I was just like, I felt really challenged by that. I felt like, “Okay, there are people that are doing things I’m not brave enough to do, and I’m supposed to be one of these people helping corral the community.” So there’s always more, there’s no limits.

John: David, earlier, you mentioned having an activity where students won a prize? Do you use gamification in your classes where there’s like a leaderboard in general? Or is that something you’d recommend? Or are there small prizes that are given out in class? And if so, does that help?

David: Yes, so gamification is a bit fraught. And the issue with gamification is, a lot of times people are like, “Hey, if I just import the mechanics of games into my class, it’ll be more fun.” And it may or may not be. I mean, you know, points are points at the end of the day, if you’re grading on them. And so we have intentionally steered away from gamification as a concept, because we’re much more interested in the idea of play. Now, I think if you look at the Playbook, you’ll find things that sound potentially gamified. But we’re much more interested in the broader sense of play as kind of an engagement. And with that in mind, when we talk about prizes, we almost always talk about really trivial prizes. So Lisa is the queen of stickers, she gives out so silly cool stickers. I teach this class, it’s an architecture class called Architecture of Fun. So I actually designed and made these postcards, they’re really nice postcards, I paid people to illustrate them. And there are these things called ludic forms, which I would love to talk to you all about. But safe to say they’re pictures of like architectural drawings of slides, and bouncy castles, and treehouses. And so when you win a prize in my class, you get a postcard. And if you win enough, you’ll win the whole set. And then I give these out at the end of this semester. So again, it’s not completely like, here’s a Twizzler, but it’s also not like extra points, or something really substantial. For the most part, people like to win for the sake of winning, I think.

Rebecca: Those bragging rights go a long way. [LAUGHTER]

David: They absolutely do.

John: I think what you’re saying is that the focus should be more on intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic motivation, because that tends to encourage more learning.

David: In my shorthand vocabulary, it’s really simple: Is what you’re doing fun? If it’s not fun, then stop doing it unless you have, I don’t have any issue with gamification, I came out of a game studies background, I think games are great. I just would say, “Stop putting games in the class if the games are just not fun. You might as well use more traditional pedagogies if the games aren’t fun.”

Rebecca: This conversation is getting me longing about in the past, I’ve taught a whole classes a game and some other things that I haven’t done in a really long time. And I’m now itching to really want to do that. [LAUGHTER]

David: We need to do another version of the playbook to get all your techniques in there. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: We had some really fun challenges. And I had invested in bells… like bells that you would have at a front desk because it was so loud it was the only way I could know if someone needed something. We would have three teams, and then each had a bell so I would know when they were done. And I had a bell so I could get their attention. [LAUGHTER]

Lisa: I love that.

David: That sounds amazing. Yeah. And see, I just say, just look at that. That’s the simplest thing in the world. And I don’t even know what you’re doing in the class. But I can hear a class that’s so loud that there’s bells in it. And sometimes I have Lisa record, just audio recording of what’s happening in her class, because the sounds that come out of her class, I could play those for other people and be like, “You don’t have to know what’s going on. When’s the last time you heard that in your class?” I want a recording of your class with bells and yelling and be like, when was the last time you heard that in your class? Because when I hear that, I’m like going, that’s the right direction. I want to go that direction.

Rebecca: Yeah, maybe I need to throw out the whole rest of my plan for this semester. I’m now like really, really working here. [LAUGHTER] …having trouble focusing on the conversation because my brain is actually planning somethings. [LAUGHTER] So thank you, I think this is all good. My students will appreciate it.

John: Do you have any other advice for people who are thinking about introducing some play into their classes?

David: Well, the thing I want to make sure that we pull out of this is that: A) we don’t think play is the end all be all, however B) play reminds us of what we think are the really core values of higher education, curiosity, community, human development. And so 3) and Lisa talked about it, we just call it the playvolution. I don’t know, it almost sounds like a joke, but we’re not kidding. Our life’s work here is to transform higher education. And we hope to do that one classroom at a time, because we believe the crisis of higher ed today is that higher ed’s lost its way. It doesn’t take care of people. It doesn’t feed curiosity. It doesn’t feed community. It doesn’t emphasize development. And we see play as being this really remarkable tool that can be brought to bear in that reconstruction effort. So yeah, I don’t know, play is scary. I hope it’s scaring the right people. We’re coming for you.

Rebecca: I think play is interesting, because it’s the safest place to fail and try things out. And isn’t that exactly what learning is?

Lisa: Exactly. I think what I am always trying to be clear about with people is playful pedagogy sounds like a lot of fun. It is, but it’s not frivolous. I found that when people hear the word playful pedagogy, they almost stop listening, because it’s like, irrelevant, it’s frivolous. It’s childish. It’s a waste of time. And it’s not, it’s actually a very profound and foundational way of teaching. So I think that’s the thing, when people learn more about it, they see how powerful it is, that it can be fun, but it’s actually a really serious way of teaching. That’s, I think, sometimes overlooked.

Rebecca: I can’t help but think as you’re both talking about transforming higher education, that part of it is play needs to happen in other spaces of higher education, like faculty meetings, administrative meetings, the faculty senate… [LAUGHTER] all these places where there’s definitely not a lot of play going on, just sneaking a little in might slowly infiltrate and cause some change to happen.

Lisa: Yep. On our campus, we have five strategic goals for the next five or 10 year what we’re working towards, and when I bring up play, they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, but we have very serious goals, we need to reach.” And in my head, I’m thinking we’re gonna reach those goals much easier if we’re playful, like one is to create lifelong learners. One is to be the best place to work. One is to be a leader in innovation. And it’s like, without play, we’re not going to get to these things at all. So it’s funny when people are like, “Yeah, yeah, we’ve got this serious work to do.” So I agree with you completely. It has to be in all aspects of higher ed, for it to change, I think.

David: And I don’t know if Lisa is being shy or not, but she has brought googly eyes to faculty meetings before.

John: One thing that strikes me is Josh Eyler begins his book on How Humans Learn by describing how he observed his child learning. And students come into elementary schools with lots of curiosity. And they’ve learned a tremendous amount by the time they’re five or six years old. That seems to get stifled pretty quickly. And it sounds like you’re advocating that we bring some of that back into the educational process.

Lisa: Yeah, for sure. So Peter Gray, he’s a play expert, mostly focused on childhood and childhood education. And he says, even at the elementary school level. Play is being pushed out of learning. recesses are being taken away, it’s more serious, there’s all these things they need to meet. And you’re right, play is the way that these kids have learned up until getting into school. So Peter Gray talks about education is like prison. [LAUGHTER] So if you look at the definition of a prison, that’s what education is. And what we know about brain science is that’s not how people learn. People don’t learn when they’re bored, or when they’re disengaged or when they’re just listening. So it’s kind of funny that it’s like, we have all these goals of engagement and deep learning and transformational experiences. And then we lecture at people. So yeah, we’re trying to make higher education different, where it’s actually what we want, in terms of outcomes and more effective and more fun.

John: And Peter Gray wrote a really effective preface to your book,

Lisa: Right, yeah, he did. He was very generous to do that. But yeah, so just the point that if childhood education is taking play out of it, then that means bringing play into higher education is gonna seem reckless, or a waste of time or radical.

Rebecca: My daughter’s in kindergarten, and they have wiggle breaks that sound really great. [LAUGHTER] I think maybe we should institute those…

David: Agreed.

Rebecca: …but it changes who gets to pick what the wiggle break is for the day, or at that point of time in the day. And so they take turns picking what the thing is, usually it’s a song that they dance to, or whatever. But I can just imagine, you sit in long meetings and things, it’s like there is no wiggle break, there is no chance to just take a breath, but it’s in those kinds of in-between spaces… we see this in conferences… those in-between spaces are where a lot of magic happens. And it gives time for people to catch up on what’s going on. Even that is a little bit of a playful idea that I think would be pretty easy to implement to just kind of take a quick break in a playful way.

Lisa: I just got a new frisbee and I’m going to, if people are like you want to have a coffee meeting, I’m going to invite them to throw the frisbee instead. So I had a student email me just this week asking to meet and I’m like, “Can we instead meet at the quad and throw the frisbee?” He’s like, “Sure.” [LAUGHTER] So yeah, I just think getting up and doing things differently.

John: For those who are thinking about becoming more playful in the classroom, are there some easy ways to get started, for those who are apprehensive?

Lisa: I am a mental health counselor. So I always like to get to the root of things. Because I think that’s the most effective way to change. So I encourage people to think about the narratives that you live by. And so if your narratives of adulthood and being an academic are, “I need to be serious to be taken seriously.” Or “rigor equals seriousness,” “play is childish, trivial, a waste of time.” If those are your narratives, it’s going to be hard to do any of this in the classroom. So for me, I encourage people to think about what are the beliefs you have about play in adulthood and in higher education? And how is that impacting your wellbeing in your job, but also what you do, which of those are not true? Like if you do a little bit of reading about playful pedagogy, you’ll learn it’s not frivolous and childish and a waste of time. So I think that’s what I encourage people first is, can you deconstruct some of those narratives, get rid of those, at least reduce them in order to be more playful. Then you’re gonna have more space to do that. And then, I think, it’s like, taking little chances. So doing one little thing of play, and seeing how it goes, and then it’ll kind of build, that’s how I started is just one icebreaker here and then I taught the class the rest of the way that I usually teach it. And then over time, I’ve implemented more and more. So I think it’s like, you don’t have to get overwhelmed and do it all at once. You don’t have to all look a certain way. But just try something out, see how it goes. And make it aligned with who you are personally, because if it doesn’t fit for you, it’s not congruent, it won’t land.

David: And the practical sense I’d say, go to the ETC, press website, download the Professors at Play Playbook. It’s free. You can pay for a printed copy, or you can download the PDF for free, flip through it, find a couple of activities that turn you on and do them. And I say if they scarer the dickens out of you, all the better. I think maybe if you’re getting started in this, fear is your best indicator you’re going in the right direction. So you’re about to jump off an awesome cliff.

Rebecca: That seems like a good note to wrap up on. [LAUGHTER]… jumping off a cliff.

John: …but an awesome club,

Rebecca: a very awesome cliff with a very awesome view. So we always wrap up by asking: What’s next?

Lisa: Oh, boy. Well, a lot of things. David wants to write another book, we got a email from one of our Professors at Play people saying, “Are you going to write a second techniques book, because I’ve got more. We’re gonna do an i- person PlayPosium this fall in Phoenix. So we’re developing that …have people come together to do playful things. What else David?,

David: I think just continuing to challenge ourselves as teachers to walk the walk. A lot of our confidence comes from experience. And so to remember, when it’s time to teach, we’ve got to jump off that cliff too. And I think we’re going to try to reignite some work with the community, get the website moving. We love making stuff, we need to find more people like Rebecca who’ve made stuff and get a platform for that. Because to us, the more we can shine a light on the good work that’s being done, the better, because we’re endlessly amazed at the creativity of our colleagues across the world.

John: And I have to ask… this PlayPosium, will it have people reading formal papers with appropriate APA citations?

David: Absolutely not. [LAUGHTER]

David: I keep trying to convince David that we should get a bunch of cardboard tape, scissors and then have a station where people can build forts. That’s one of the things I want to do. So yeah, it won’t be traditional. That’s why it’s called a PlayPosium Instead of symposium. We’ll share some ideas, but a lot of it is going to be activities and engaging and doing playful, creative things.

Rebecca: Sounds really fun.

David: That’s the plan.

John: Well, thank you very much for joining us. This has been a lot of fun, and I hope our listeners will try to be a little more playful in their classes.

Rebecca: …and perhaps take that leap off that cliff… that awesome cliff.

David: Wahoo…. Aahhh.

Lisa: But it’s not like falling to your death. [LAUGHTER]

John: It’s like the Road Runner.

Lisa: Things expand and then you’re flying and it’s freedom.

Rebecca: Exactly. It’s a great image to end on. Thank you so much for joining us.

Lisa: Thank you.

David: Alright, thanks.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.