294. The Allure of Play

Student learning is enhanced when active learning activities are used in instruction. In this episode, Victoria Mondelli and Joe Bisz join us to discuss how principles of game design can be used to create engaging active learning experiences. Tori is the Founding Director of the University of Missouri’s Teaching for Learning Center and is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis. She had previously served at the teaching centers at Mercy College and at the CUNY Borough of Manhattan Community College. Joe Bisz is a learning games designer and Full Professor of English at CUNY Borough of Manhattan Community College. Victoria and Joe are co-authors of The Educator’s Guide to Designing Games and Creative Active-Learning Exercises: The Allure of Play, which was published in March this year by Teachers College Press at Columbia University.

Show Notes


John: Student learning is enhanced when active learning activities are used in instruction. In this episode, we discuss how principles of game design can be used to create engaging active learning experiences.


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 Victoria Mondelli and Joe Bisz. Tori is the Founding Director of the University of Missouri’s Teaching for Learning Center and is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis. She had previously served at the teaching centers at Mercy College and at the CUNY Borough of Manhattan Community College. Joe Bisz is a learning games designer and Full Professor of English at CUNY Borough of Manhattan Community College. Victoria and Joe are co-authors of The Educator’s Guide to Designing Games and Creative Active-Learning Exercises: The Allure of Play, which was published in March this year by Teachers College Press at Columbia University. Welcome Tori and Joe.

Joe: Hi.

Tori: Hi.

Joe: Thanks for having us.

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

Joe: Oh, yes, classic chamomile.

Rebecca: …in a mug that looks handmade?

Joe: It looks handmade. But that’s just to make people think I have other skills as well. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: How about you, Tori?

Tori: Today I have a Starbucks espresso and cream in a fancy, fancy glass because it’s so special to be with you today.

Rebecca: She has upped to a stemmed glass. [LAUGHTER] How about you, John?

John: I am drinking a peppermint and spearmint tea in a Tea for Teaching mug.

Rebecca: That’s good. I have a cacao tea.

Tori: Very nice.

Rebecca: Cacao tea… the cocoa plant. And so it’s actually made from the plant rather than with tea leaves. So it’s not chocolate flavored. Made from the cacao plant. It’s very tasty.

John:I heard cat cow?

Rebecca: Cacao.

John: Well, I was thinking of the animals.

Tori: I was thinking of the yoga pose.

John: That’s right.

Tori: Cat cow. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve invited you here today to discuss your book, The Educators Guide to Designing Games and Creative Active Learning Exercises. What are the advantages of using playful activities in learning?

Joe: Well, I think I can take this start. Basically the foremost advantage of being playful is that your exercise can recapture the ageless allure of learning. As children,the first way that we all learn was by probing our environment, playing with it, inventing mock scenarios and then changing up the rules. As adults, I think that in our rush to instruct, our exercises can often become top down, and we can miss opportunities to inspire wonder.

Tori: Yeah, and I’d like to add, that’s why Joe and I really wanted our book to show teachers how to build their own creative active learning exercises to be easily appliable. We mostly come at it from a non-digital aspect. So we are recommending using basic materials, paper, cards, tricky questions, puzzles, point systems and role plays as some of our most common tactics.

Rebecca: Although, lucky for us, there’s plenty of digital technology that can make all those things happen in other environments too.

Tori: Exactly, and the book does have that. We have different sections of the book “design online,” and so recommending those tools as well.

Joe: Low-key though, low hyphen key.

Rebecca: So we know that students play games for hours, often weeks, months, and engage in things for long periods of time as they master new games and get engaged with their friends. What are some principles of game design that we can use to create and maintain student engagement in our classes?

Joe: This actually began some of our early research before the book, thinking in this direction. When designers make mainstream video games, or even elaborate board games, escape rooms, or interactive installations in museums, whether for children or adults, there’s often a lot of difficult content that needs to be taught. So as you mentioned, the designers rely on tried and true principles of interactive design to make these experiences feel engaging. In fact, there’s been a lot of work by other researchers in the past 20 years, exploring variations of these principles, and suggesting that we teachers can learn from these principles. But most of the focus was on proving the research rather than articulating how to apply these principles in a practical manner. This led to our own research collaboration, and eventually our very successful and hands-on professional development workshops. They use our methods.

Tori: So we have several sets of principles in the book, and I think this will be a perfect opportunity to tell you about our engagement principle. And we have five of those. The first one we call “narrative and fantasy,” the basic idea being that people need to hear stories that give context to what they’re facing in their own lives. The next one is “networked or sensory environment,” the idea that people thrive when they’re communicating in social groups using digital smart tools and multimedia. The next one, we would call “fast or random access,”
many people like processing information non-linearly and even simultaneously. Next is a classic one, “challenge,” people really want to challenge them feels achievable and personal. And the last one is also sort of a classic, I’d say, and that’s “rewards,” what we call “frequent rewards” or “feedback,” that we really as human beings crave feedback on our choices, even if that feedback is abstract, like .4 miles or something along those lines.

Rebecca: Can you share a couple of examples of what those engagement principles look like in the classroom?

Tori: Yes, Joe, do you think now’s a good time to talk about the simple mechanics?

Joe: Yeah, I think so. And this is basically a way that learning activities can be, as we could use the word converted, or transformed into some kind of playful activity. So there’s a spectrum, we think, to making an exercise more playful, or engaging. Of course, the first step is to just have it be active, have the learner actually be doing something other than just listening, the next step is to add a fun element. These are elements which researchers have shown add engagement or playfulness, we’ve classified some of these into what we call the five simple mechanics. And let’s see if we can explain them using audio only. So make the pace of your exercise a little bit random, or a little bit rapid. That’s two of the simple mechanics, rapid or random, or you can make its goal involve some kind of reward, such as points, badges, or some kind of rivalry, a little bit of competition, or students cooperating against a challenge, which still has competition, or some kind of roles. And we define roles pretty broadly, it could involve themes that have concentrated moments of emotions like feelings of suspense, it could be playing a historical, or fictional character, or just the students being on teams, and each student has a particular responsibility. So if just a part of it has one of these simple mechanics, not the whole thing, then you’re already on your way to creating something playful, so at least those moments would be playful.

Rebecca: So you’ve mentioned the five simple mechanics, can you give an example of what that looks like? So you’ve provided a frame, provided some playful things that we can think about, what would an activity maybe look like using something like that?

Tori: So one of the games that I like to play in the Teaching for Learning Center with faculty, and then what usually happens is they figure out ways to use it in their classroom, is a game that Joe designed a few years ago, we call it icebreaker bingo. So you can imagine a bingo card where there are prompts on each of the squares. And when people come in the room, and they’ve never met each other before, but there’s a common thread, those prompts will relate to that thread. And you circulate around the room and you go up to different people, you obviously introduce your name and other important details, and then you get right to it. You can ask them up to two of the prompts. And if they are true for them, they sign their initial, and then keep moving through the room. So the first person to get five across or five down or five of a kind, we have categories would shout “bingo.” They can think about the simple mechanics at play in that wonderful icebreaker certainly is random. Usually people don’t come up with a strategy for it, they just go up to random people and ask random prompts. And then they also can kind of get into the role of being an interviewer and selecting different prompts based on the ones that they like. The rewards is really strong in that particular icebreaker because there’s that joyous moment of explaining bingo, and then we’ll usually have a prize. And the rival factor is very heavy in icebreaker bingo. So that’s one that has a lot of these engagement principles, and is very popular with faculty and students alike, and can be just for general getting to know each other, but also could be used a little bit as a kind of quizzing mechanism as well.

Joe: And I like that Tori gave an example of what we would call basically a more full fledged game. But our listeners can also think about the simple mechanics as just little sprinkles onto something. So for example, for random, we have something that we named monkey wrench challenges, where you have any kind of standard activity with the students that are working on something. But then you make a point of changing things by calling out a sudden challenge that requires the students to alter their approach. So maybe it’s a new perspective by which they’re looking at the material and other concepts and kind of new information that they have to find. And even though you’ve planned it out, probably, unless you have a deck of these things that you’re drawing from, it’ll have a nice taste of random and nonlinear and break the order that students were doing something and therefore, for reasons known to these researchers, feel somewhat pleasing.

John: Can any active learning activity be converted into a more playful structure.

Joe: I think so because if we look at it as a spectrum, moving from active learning to adding a little bit of play, even if the rest of your exercises is exactly as you’ve already designed it, then anything can be converted. It’s just a question of whether one, after analyzing the need for what you’re trying to achieve, whether it needs it. The longer you have an activity that goes on that you might consider or your students might consider to be passive, we would argue the more the need for some element of it to change the pace, or to change the goal, so that it could feel a little bit more playful.

Tori: And Joe, in our decade plus time of doing this work, have you ever had an occasion where somebody came to you for advice on making a learning activity more playful or gameful where you’ve had to turn them away? I could say I have not, we always find something.

Joe: No, definitely not. Especially if they’re already crossed the chasm, and they’re actually interested in making a more playful,

Rebecca: …perhaps the very first step, right? So you note in your book that learning activities might be focused on skill and drill, or focus more on deep learning. Can you talk a little bit about how we can do a playful activity or a game for each of those different kinds of learning?

Tori: Yes, definitely. And if you’ll let me just kind of explain a little bit on how we classify skill and drill versus going more towards deep learning. So skill and drill, what we’re really talking about here are sort of facts, factual, and foundational knowledge that’s needed either in a discipline or sort of a general education curriculum. And so it’s really things that people need to commit to memory, just basic ease and facility with those facts or figures, that kind of thing. And then when we’re talking about deep learning, we start to move into the ability to, for those who love Bloom’s Taxonomy, is like moving into manipulating information using higher order thinking, but to do that in a way that really will be long lasting, because even over time that certain things can evaporate. That’s just human memory. So when we talk about games for deeper learning, it’s not enough to use the engagement principles and the simple mechanics. And there are ways of structuring it so that we get students to grapple more deeply with content and do things with content. So we’re delighted to bring the complex mechanic to people and readers with the ALLURE method. Joe, do you want to talk about that?

Joe: Yeah. So it’s perhaps a little unexpected in our book, because a lot of people who are talking about games are focusing on the engagement element. And immediately, we do talk about that. But we’re actually firm believers that, in addition to being engaging, well designed games and playful activities, can carry, as Tori was saying, deep learning principles taken from the cognitive sciences. So before the book, I started doing some research on ways that faculty were already approaching learning activities in the classroom. And I came up with a classification system that Tori also expanded on with me for the purpose of the book. And we looked at how these things could carry some of what we call deep learning principles, such as identity situated meanings, and the ability to pass information to students through cycles of expertise, so that the students slowly becomes a master and then is challenged by new information. We call these the complex mechanics, and to them will instantly be very familiar, I think, to most of our audience. One of them is called “trivia questions.” It’s pretty much the most common type of playful activity that educators use in the classroom. Another one is called “simulations,” which is also very common, especially at the high school level. And that can involve debates and roleplays, which in our opinion, are an example type simulation, also arguments. Very complex mechanics, we call “cut ups,” basically about sequencing puzzles, reordering information, mixing it up, and having to put it back together. Other ones would involve classification type exercises, such as sorting or matching. So these are already hard-core activities that are done sometimes in the classroom. But we’ve linked them to some of these deep learning principles and have explained how these teachers want to design something but they don’t want to reinvent the wheel, they could just look at one of these nine complex mechanics and they’re sort of gameful approaches, creating something. We also have deduction exercises, common to scavenger hunts, brainstorming, which is definitely playful and feel like a kind of game and interpretive exercises such as improv. I was just at conference a few days ago, called Playful Learning and improv was everywhere. It was the heart with all these teachers just talking about and it was so interesting to see all these examples of playful improv in order to illuminate the concept.

John: In your title, you have the ALLURE of play, but ALLURE is used there not just as part of the title, but it’s also an acronym. Could you tell our listeners what the acronym stands for?

Tori: Yes, A – ask where to apply the play. L- list the mental moves. Second L – link the mental moves to the play. U – understand how the learning principles operate. R – run the activity game. And E – evaluate the learner experience. So that spells ALLURE, and that’s our six-step method, the backward design guide. And we’re so happy that it worked out because we just love the word “allure.”

Rebecca: Can you walk us through those steps in how a faculty member might approach their class and designing an activity?

Tori: The first step really, an educator wants to ask themselves or work with a small group to really inquire in their own curriculum about where, to use a business term, where would the return on investment be for your student learning? Joe and I are believers that if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. [LAUGHTER] So where are students struggling? Have you taught this class before? Is there a bottleneck in learning? Is there something that’s holding them back from the learning? And we think game-based learning is the ultimate in active learning pedagogy, as really, really strong to help students through and be successful. We advise educators to look at the curriculum and go where the student learning is being held up for some reason. Maybe there’s a student learning bottleneck, because cognitively it’s a difficult concept. Or maybe there’s an affective blockage. So Joe and I are strong proponents of game-based learning as the best active learning strategy. And so we think that you can go to your toughest student learning challenges and apply game-based learning there. So that’s what we’re really asking in step one is, where do you think you’ll have the most bang for your buck? Because game-based learning does take a good amount of talent and time put into it. So making judicious decisions. Is there a place where students are bored? Is there a place where just, semester after semester, you lose half the class, and to go ahead and apply your energies there. The next step, list the mental moves, really gets at when you have a student learning outcome that you’re working with for students in a class, oftentimes, that’s written in a way that is a little obtuse, you have to break it down to really get at what the student is actually doing mentally, what are the mental acrobatics that are going on there? So this is where we will say, “Let’s get granular. What are we really talking about? What are the mental moves?” Joe and I are both very inspired by the decoding the discipline scholarly community, and they have had, for decades, really strong practices in faculty working together, two faculty from different disciplines to help each other break down what the expert is really doing. And so the first couple of steps of the ALLURE method are really picking up on that tradition of where do you want this learning game to be successful in your curriculum? And then what is really going on at a minute level, the kinds of thinking steps, the kinds of mental moves that students need practice with. And then the third, I like to think of link the mental moves to the play… it really is the magic of the whole ALLURE method. Because when Joe developed the complex mechanics, he categorized them according to Bloom’s Taxonomy level. Now, what this does is it really takes a lot of guesswork out for educators who want to apply the method. Now all of a sudden, they can drill down on nine of the complex mechanics and say, “Well, I want the complex mechanics that are really going to help my students. say with analysis.” And then that gives them a subset of choices, that they can choose the complex mechanic that foster more analysis and build that in as the game play, so students are really practicing analysis, getting feedback on that analysis. And it’s really quite time efficient, thanks to that categorization.

Joe: So Tori just reviewed the first three steps: ask, list, and link. The last three steps are understand, run, and evaluate. So as soon as the teacher has finished thinking about what are the actual steps the students are doing, and connecting it to one or more of the complex mechanics, this is the moment when we ask them to brainstorm roughly what their playful activity will look like. So in the book, they take 20 minutes, putting together some ideas, making connections, then they have some tea, take time off and we move on. So this is all about the end of link moving into understand how the learning principles operate. Within understand how the learning principle operate, they then do a debrief and they’re examining what they came up with. And they’re comparing it to all the mechanics and principles that we’ve been teaching them so far in the book, not because their activity needs to have all of these things, that they’re looking for. have perhaps missed opportunities, or things that can be refined, or mechanics that they were working on, but perhaps didn’t come across as thoroughly as possible. We call these checklists. And they’re just going through and reevaluating their approach, and then tweak it one more time. In the next step, we have run the activity game. So ideally, the teacher would talk to either some play testers or some fellow colleagues in their discipline, and talk to them about what they’ve come up with, one more last chance for feedback. And then they would present it in the classroom to their students. And we have different methods for collecting student feedback and taking notes on what they’re saying. We realized pretty early on in our own workshops, that a lot of teachers are actually just uncertain how to even run an activity game in a classroom, much less one that they’ve designed. There’s so many facilitation issues to think about. So within our step, run the activity game, we also walk teachers through thinking about common facilitation issues that will come up such as: Do I have the right kinds of desks to hold these games or activities? Do I need a projection screen? How many teams are there going to be? Should students be in teams. In all these concerns, they can think about them ahead of time and have a good strike plan. After the activity game is run, we go to the last step, evaluate, evaluate the learner experience. And we have different rubrics and ways that the teacher can think about how successful was the students’ experience of this? And how might the activity game be iterated upon and changed for next time? Because we all know, we slowly work on our exercises, and we make them better year after year, till perhaps we get tired of them, or we put them aside for a while.

John: When you present this material, I imagine there’s some faculty who are resistant to the whole concept of building play into classroom instruction. How do you address that with faculty?

Tori: I never force it on them. We start with: “What brings you in today?” And we talk about we sort of have a co inquiry process of like, “What’s going well, what’s not going so well?” And then wel don’t always bring the play or the games at first. It seems like mostly when I advertise a game-based learning community of practice or a workshop, you’re sort of already getting people that are open to it. But I can tell a nice anecdote about working with the political science department. I started working with them about four years ago, just on a course redesign because their student success, or the grades, were not where they needed to be… a large enrollment course. And so we just started working together to boost student attendance, students really weren’t coming to class as they should be, and to boost presumably student learning, but they really had some assessments that I thought could be improved upon. So I was even questioning how much learning are we really evaluating here. So we began and worked with each other for a couple of years, just doing classic active learning redesign, before I even broached the subject with them about playing games. And what brought that about was an internal grant for $100,000 became available to do innovative creative teaching and learning. And so when I pitched that idea to them, I think our relationship and my credibility with them, that we’re not just adding bells and whistles, we’re really talking about some proper teaching and learning principles to not only boost engagement, but to deepen learning. And it’s been a wonderful project. And we have new board games and card games, we’re going to have our first video game. We’re working with Adroit Studios, our gaming lab on campus. And so they are very, very pleased and had never really been in game-based learning before.

Joe: And adding to what Tori’s saying, I think often the teachers just want to see like a little hook, a very quick understanding of what they could do to be playful. And then from there, they start getting other ideas. So we often lead with talking about simple mechanics. So we might say, well, for example, you make something a little bit more rapid, maybe you’re giving a certain amount of time for students to answer the question, not like a test question that’s worth something, but during an activity just to make it a little bit more playful, 10 seconds to think about something. Or taking another aspect of the rapid simple mechanic, one might have a very long activity that students have to do. There’s been research showing that if you can chunk that activity into shorter segments, perhaps that are assigned a certain amount of time, not really above timers, but just to get through all of them the day, students can more easily see the discrete tasks and operations you’re supposed to be performing in each of those segments. Make something a little bit more random. We mentioned earlier about the monkey wrench challenge, and try to use a little bit of roles in what you’re discussing. Roles are linked to narrative, and it really does help to give a theme or some kind of narrative directivity. For example, for discussing an essay, or a textbook entry, or any concept, tell a quick story that illustrates some of the concepts from that reading. Or ask the class to actually help you write a short creative introduction to the boring essay that everyone had to read or that you’re reading in class, and to use a narrative hook in that short introduction. So now we’re using the power of analogy and of fiction, well, not really fiction, but sort of narrative to help students see sort of a more macro way of tying concepts together before doing a deep dive. So these are all little ways to think how to quickly and briefly be playful.

Rebecca: I hear both of you describing some really interesting things in the classroom. But I also know that faculty can be really anxious about trying something new, or trying to make something happen. And as exciting as it can be, taking that first step can be scary. You’ve mentioned some of the simple mechanics and I heard you say something about low stakes and the way that you’re applying about points and not being a big test or a test question. Can you talk about the little ways to get started?

Tori: My favorite way to introduce faculty to this whole new world is to invite them to play a game Joe made years back called: “What’s your game plan?” And this is a wonderful card game in a team. And it’s cooperative play. And it’s a brainstorming game. It has been just a joy bringing faculty together where they can be playful together, and see what they come up with. It uses a lot of the simple mechanics, so it’s a great way to introduce them to the simple mechanics. And they can either bring a lesson objective that they have, or Joe’s deck has some common lesson outcomes. So it really takes the edge off. And they can just relax in what Joe and I like to call the sandbox, and just say: “Be creative.” …give them permission to play themselves. And that is one of my go to. I mean, there’s not a semester that goes by that I don’t lean on What’s your game plan? So grateful to Joe for making that. And then I guess we could also say: “Well, let’s start at the beginning with the ALLURE method.” Step A: ask where to apply the play and once you have that student learning bottleneck that you want to look at, maybe you’re not ready for the complex mechanics, but you can think about two or three of the simple mechanics that you can add to an existing activity you have for to convert even maybe a lecture or a mini lecture into something a little bit more playful, where the students are interacting with you in some way.

Rebecca: So I’m always curious to ask what’s your favorite, or one of your favorites… because we obviously can’t have favorites… your favorite game or playful activity you’ve seen implemented in the classroom.

Joe: I talk about this example a lot, my heart goes there immediately. One of the complex mechanics I was talking about, I said something about one called cut ups, which comes from sequencing ideas together. And I was trying to think about how to use this in the writing classroom since I’m an English professor. I was getting a little bit stuck looking at it on the level of just words, like cutting up a sentence, at the level of the word… reordering it. This is really only teaching grammar and I wanted something a little bit more sophisticated that was about reading and writing. And about this time, one of my colleagues, Julie Cassidy, without us really even having a conversation told me that she’d come up with something. She showed it to me. And basically, she had taken, I think it was a four paragraph essay, that was published about crab fishing. So we have something that’s explaining a procedure, how to do something, to cut up this essay on the level of the sentence. So, there are like 25 sentences, carefully inserted in an envelope so they don’t all get lost. And then we had a low-level writing classroom where the students were very weak. She brought it in, in groups of five, dropped an envelope in front of them, said, “Okay, put it in order.” She’s describing this to me, and I’m very excited. So I did the same thing about a week later. And it was incredible just to see their faces so utterly focused on the task in front of them. And one of them would like, move their hand forward to move a piece of paper with a little bit of timidity, but with deep interest, and then the other one would gently touch your hand and say, “No, no, it goes over there.” Then like “ah,” [LAUGHTER] and they’re like stroking their chin and moving. And this went on for like 12 Intense minutes before the groups had basically all solved the order for a possible order that made sense of the essay. So of course, they’re looking at transitions, their reading for sense, so there’s close reading here, they’re thinking of ways that information can be ordered for their own writing. And then a great way to follow up an exercise like this is to ask students to write their own mini essay. It’s teaching some kind of procedure, like creating a recipe. So this was a great example because it goes beyond just a quick moment of play into something that’s a longer activity and where you can really see the deep learning happening with the students. That’s one of my favorite examples.

Tori: And I have one also that’s quite well known for deep learning, and that is the whole suite of games called Reacting to the Past. So I’ve had the honor of attending and playing a lot of these games, and they are deeply immersive role-playing games. Most of my experience is with history games, but they’re all across the curriculum, even in some of the sciences now. And here I just marveled at the amount of hard work that students will do in order to play their characters really well and meet their objective. So, the writing of speeches and other kinds of rhetoric and communication, the behind the scenes faction politicking, they’re willing to do, the, I would say, transcendence of one’s own identity to kind of widen perspective of other that goes on in these games. Kudos to Mark Carnes and all of the reacting creators and trainers around the country and around the world who are doing such great work with that. At the University of Missouri, we have recently made a game that’s akin to Reacting in the sense that it’s a role playing game. But it’s more of a card game than a reacting game, and it teaches students about bureaucracies, and how frustrating bureaucracies can be, but that hiring more people isn’t always the right scenario. So it takes the role-playing mechanic and then we throw in unexpected stress bombs, we’ll call it, of the government goes on furlough, all of the workers have to cease what they’re doing for 20 minutes or something like that. And it just has all of these likely events or unlikely events that can happen. And the students are really in their roles to solve a problem. So we’ll take things from current events, like recent scandals or problems and have the students work through that. And then there’s a peer review piece of it, where they’re actually scoring each other’s solutions. And that’s been really wonderful to help the faculty create, and we’ve been play testing it and we’re really excited to bring it to a live real class in the fall.

Rebecca: That sounds really exciting.

Tori: Thank you. Yes.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking what’s next?

Tori: Well, Joe, and I do a lot of professional development events, we are often going to conferences. I’m really excited coming up soon, I’m gonna get to take ALLURE abroad. I have a trip to Thailand to Prince of Songkla University to present there. And then I’m going to Germany in the fall for the Decoding the Disciplines conference. Joe, I know you’re always doing lots of things, if memory serves, you’re going to Gen Con, this summer to do a lot of workshops.

Joe: Yep. So for any teachers listening who will have a strong interest also in playing tabletop games, there’s a conference, a convention called G-E-N C-O-N, Gen Con. And they have a pre-day, an earlier day, which is all about using learning games and thinking about games of education. And I’ll be running at least four or five workshops there, just for all you applying the ideas behind learning games.

Tori: And we always love for people to get in contact with us. You can reach us through AllureOfPlay.com, our website. We have a growing contact list that we’d like to keep people apprised of our different online workshops and in-person opportunities. And there’s a lot more on that website.

Joe: Yeah, we’ve even …was it two years ago, Tori? …there’s a whole section on our website about using playful activities online. So on your discussion board, your Zoom class, we made a video that walks teachers through thinking about these ideas, also how to design in the lowest easy possible for the online space, basically through using PowerPoint, and creating little things students can manipulate and using your class should that be of interest to you, and also a lot of other free resources and activities and games that you can download.

John: We’ll share a link to that in the show notes file that will accompany this episode.

Rebecca: Well thank you so much, Tori, and Joe for sharing ALLURE with us.

Tori: Thank you, so great to be with you

Joe: Thank you very much.


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.


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.