Let’s Play: The Power of Play in Higher EducationJulia Cummings | School of Education and Human Development Feb 1, 2023
Feeling caught on a hamster wheel in teaching? Lisa Forbes, clinical assistant professor of counseling at CU Denver and co-founder of a global faculty network called Professors at Play, has a novel perspective and new book that break traditional molds. The perspective is based in play which she likens to fertilizer for the learning brain.
“Play creates a powerful learning process,” said Forbes. “When we play, we feel joy and laugh which reduces stress and anxieties. When that happens in the presence of others, a sense of trust and community is built. Those bonds give us confidence to exist outside of our comfort zones. Then we are more willing to enter difficult conversations or vulnerable learning scenarios. All that leads to meaningful learning.”
“Brain science tells us that what wires together fires together,” said Forbes. “The more we play, the more we reshape our brains to have a better sense of wellbeing and capacity to handle stress. This is huge for learning because significant and unnecessary stress limits our ability to learn. At the same time, neuroscience has identified that neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, and oxytocin strengthen neuroplasticity - the central process to learning. These neurotransmitters increase motivation, attention, memory, safety, and trust. If we can better shape the learning environment to encourage those types of neurotransmitters in students’ brains, we can better support their learning.”
Forbes is dedicated to accomplishing the learning goals set by the counseling accrediting body and her field, yet in a way that awakens students’ natural curiosity for learning. Her understanding of play in her teaching is flexible. We can play with ideas, design, and create novel ways of presenting concepts. “I think of it as bending the rules without breaking the game,” said Forbes. “Play provides me structure to challenge the status quo and norms of academia. Traditional education excludes and devalues some learners but play, in my experience, allows for more inclusivity and ability to better engage students who typically feel marginalized in learning. Play is open, flexible, and creative so it allows more students to find belonging and individualize their learning.”
Forbes takes typical classroom activities and assignments and adds elements of play which transforms students’ relationship to learning, making the material more intriguing. She incorporates humor, surprise, and even carries around little pouches of stickers as prizes. She has incorporated a “Martian mission” exercise where her students pretended they were sent to Earth to help the earthlings solve their biggest problems related to the content of the course. “The Martian activity especially had students cracking up because I made a video of myself with a Martian-like filter describing their mission,” said Forbes. One successful icebreaker she implemented involved balloons and fly swatters. During another semester, she asked students to respond to reflection questions by writing answers on paper airplanes and sailing them in her direction. She turned the children’s book Giraffes Can’t Dance into a mental health case study. Most recently, she created an escape room as a more engaging way for students to learn about a counseling professional organization. She even allows students to turn in some assignments using non-traditional methods such as creating their own podcasts or pop culture blogs.
While a lot of this sounds like pure fun, Forbes was clear that it is not frivolous. “People hear playful pedagogy, and they think that seriousness or rigor cannot coexist. Play is more valuable and complex than that. Play can be fun, but play can also be serious. Play can be rebellious because it challenges what is. Play allows me to have higher expectations of my students and positions me to give them honest and critical feedback because there is greater safety and trust. I have found the depth of work my students are willing to do and the quality of assignments they submit are full of effort and passion because they are bought in. That is the power of play.”
Professors at Play is an online community launched in 2020 by Forbes and David Thomas. This Google listserv is filled with kind-hearted individuals from the U.S., Australia, Egypt, the UK, and all over Europe. In two years, it has grown to almost 800 members. Forbes welcomes individuals to explore the website for inspiration and permission to play. The website includes a blog, resources, and links to their YouTube channel featuring recordings of what they call their “Playposiums,” which are like symposiums but more fun. The website contains links to Forbes’ 2021 research article in the Journal of Teaching and Learning called “The process of playful learning in higher education: A phenomenological study and two reads in the online newsletter Faculty Focus: “Fostering Fun in Asynchronous Classes!” and “A Game Day”. For more information about the online community, visit professorsatplay.org.
Forbes and Thomas coauthored a book by Carnegie Mellon Press published in January, 2023 titled The Professors at Play Playbook. It is an anthology of almost 100 play techniques from over 65 professors across a variety of disciplines. The collection of techniques is organized around four key themes: the playful professor, connection-former or icebreaker activities, play to teach content, and playful whole course design. The book is available for purchase or free download.