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Students and their professor playing with balloons

Lisa Forbes, co-founder of Professors at Play, plays with her students while teaching a course on mental health counseling at the University of Colorado at Denver.

Julia Cummings

Six years ago, Lisa Forbes wasn’t sure how much longer she’d be able to stick it out as a professor. She felt stifled in the often-uptight university climate and worried she wasn’t fully engaging her students in the material.

She’d always considered herself playful and nonconformist: she wears a nose ring, has tattoos and is known for sporting Air Jordan sneakers she calls her J’s. But something felt off.

“I’ve never really liked status quo, norms, shoulds or have-tos. I’ve always liked doing things a different way,” said Forbes, an assistant clinical professor of counseling at the University of Colorado at Denver. “When I got to academia and became a professor, there were a lot of implicit messages I received about what good teaching is, what rigorous teaching is, and how a young, female clinical-track professor should behave in a classroom.”

Forbes thought that didn’t leave room to infuse her playful spirit into her job.

‘Unfulfilled and Drained’

“I found myself teaching in a way that was not in line with my values and my worldview,” said Forbes, who said she felt pressure to teach material in a traditional lecture style and take a serious and rigid approach with her students. “It felt really boring to me. Students were bored. It was awful. After every single class, I left feeling so unfulfilled and drained and knew I wouldn’t make it very long.”

But in 2018 she saw a colleague, David Thomas, the so-called professor of fun, give a talk about how to make life, including work, more fun.

“It connected with something inside of me,” Forbes said. “I knew I had to meet with him.”

Thomas, executive director for online programs in the University of Denver’s Office of Graduate Education, previously worked as an assistant professor in CU Denver’s College of Architecture and Planning and has spent years researching the concepts of fun and play. He’s co-authored the books Fun, Taste & Games: An Aesthetics of the Idle, Unproductive and Otherwise Playful and FUN AT WORK: How to Boost Creativity, Unleash Innovation, and Reinvent the Future of Work Using the Transformative Power of Play.

But Thomas hadn’t looked at how to make higher education, specifically, more playful until he met Forbes. In 2020, they launched Professors at Play, which started out as a small Listserv designed to share ideas about play and learning.

“We keep the notion of play broad, but what we’re finding is that it’s a center of gravity in higher ed because it meets a whole bunch of really important needs,” said Thomas, who explained that play in the classroom can include games, problem-solving, collaboration and deconstructing ideas. “It stimulates student engagement. It reignites the love of teaching. It creates safe spaces for failing and learning. It connects faculty and students. In that sense, it’s addressing a whole raft of issues we have around mental health and retention.”

The Professors at Play Listserv has since grown to include more than 800 faculty members and other higher education professionals from across the globe.

“We started thinking this would make learning more fun, make my job more fun and make students more engaged,” Forbes said. “Which is true, but as we’ve gotten a deeper understanding, we’ve learned this is way more complex and foundational than that.”

While Professors at Play is relatively new, the concept of play in higher education isn’t.

In the United Kingdom, the Playful Learning Association started as a focus group in 2010 and aims to “share research evidence and experiential practice in the area of play, games and learning,” according to its website. The Playful University Platform, based in Denmark, launched in 2019 and is dedicated to making higher education and the university more playful. And in the United States, professors in the STEM fields are increasingly turning to gamification to make the material more engaging.

Earlier this year, Thomas and Forbes published the Professors at Play PlayBook, which is a diverse collection of more than 100 techniques—tested by more than 65 educators—for playful learning in higher education.

Robert Corrada, a professor in the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, is one of the educators featured in the book.

He teaches an administrative law class, but instead of delivering the material via traditional lectures, students learn through an immersive experience set in the fictional world of Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel, Jurassic Park; they work in teams to draft laws governing extinct-animal parks. Corrada also teaches a labor law class in which students form a fictional union and spend the semester negotiating with him (he plays the role of the employer) about the terms of the course.

“Law is a game. You learn rules and play by the rules to get what you want,” he said. “When I went to law school, I learned all this law and took these exams, but then I got to practice law. Practicing law is about creative lawyering. It is about how to use the law to handle the client’s issues. These simulations really spur that creativity.”

Corrada has been using play-teaching techniques since the 1990s, but for many years he was the only faculty member at his institution taking a playful approach. Then, in 2007, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching released Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law, a report that called on law schools to incorporate more simulations in their curriculum.

“Everybody started coming to me asking about simulations,” he said. “We’ve created about 25 classes through the law school.”

‘Profound and Complex’

Forbes, the Professors at Play co-founder, said incorporating play into her teaching has changed her outlook on academe.

“It really saved my career and put me on a different trajectory, and it’s given me more interest and passion in the work,” she said. “It’s been life-changing.”

Having students do icebreakers, or “connection-formers,” as Forbes calls them, are an example of play she uses in the classroom that “gets people engaged, laughing and helps them get to know each other a little better to create a community of learning.”

She also incorporates play into the actual content she teaches—mental health counseling—which involves analyzing numerous case studies.

“It becomes mundane to students and another box to jump through. I tried to make it a little more fun and engaging by creating a case study from a children’s book” about a giraffe, Forbes said. “They’re still applying the same knowledge and skills they need to, but it just makes it more dynamic and fun and novel.”

Forbes has also researched the effectiveness of employing playful pedagogy in her teaching, and she published her findings in the peer-reviewed Journal of Teaching and Learning in 2021.

“From that I realized that play and learning is way more profound and complex than people give it credit for,” she said. “I think people hear ‘playful pedagogy’ and they just think of silly, playful activities.”

That’s what some of her students thought initially, according to the study, which notes that multiple participants were “skeptical or confused by the idea of play in a higher education setting.” But once they finished the course, “that uncertainty had been resolved and participants spoke favorably about play in learning.”

While her study didn’t measure the statistical effects of play on learning outcomes, students reported that it reduced fear and anxiety about learning, created a sense of belonging in the classroom, awakened their motivation and excitement for learning, and made students more open to feedback.

One anonymous student profiled in the study reflected on their early skepticism that playful learning could work for graduate students.

“He was not initially excited about the expectation of being highly engaged by saying the ‘lazy student in me would rather sit and listen to a lecture’ so he does not have to do anything,” the study said, “but he also simultaneously admitted that he learns better when he is engaged and interacting.”

Kelly O’Connell was taking a class with Forbes in the spring of 2020, when the pandemic shut down in-person learning midway through the semester.

“It was a tumultuous semester, but the camaraderie Dr. Forbes was able to build with our class really translated when we were forced to be on computer screens with each other,” O’Connell said. “It made a very serious and heavy topic a little bit lighter and more approachable.”

O’Connell now works as a counselor at the Academy of Charter Schools in Westminster, Colo., and draws on the playful approach to manage a caseload of about 175 students.

“Our interactions can be very brief, so building a rapport with students can take a few times,” she said. “Putting genuine human connection first, which is encouraged through the play work Forbes does, allows for things to feel more real between people.”

Skepticism and Criticism

Although Thomas and Forbes believe a playful pedagogy can be applied to the teaching of any subject, some of their colleagues remain skeptical about its merits.

“I had one colleague say to me that my classes may be all fun and games, but I still need to be rigorous,” Forbes recalled.

Forbes, who as a clinical professor is not eligible for tenure, said that working outside of the tenure track may give her “a certain level of freedom and more space for creativity.” At the same time, she noted, “I do not have protections of tenure, so perhaps I have less power to be bold.”

Dèsa Karye Daniel, an assistant professor in the counseling program at CU Denver, said that while she respects Forbes’s playful approach, she isn’t without skepticism. Daniel especially wants to make sure a playful pedagogy would complement her own work’s focus on race and racism.

“I teach difficult topics and while I want them to be fun to engage with, I want to honor the cultural experiences and values these topics bring up for marginalized students,” Daniel said in an email. “We desperately need more opportunities to engage students. Where I worry is, how we balance fun engagement with purposeful learning that prepares students to pass their state licensure exams.”

But striking a balance between academic rigor and play is the whole point of the Professors at Play community.

“Our core mission is to transform higher education, but our mechanism is giving people permission to play,” Thomas said. “We want to remind people that they don’t have to be a white, gray-haired full professor who dresses up in togas to lecture on Socrates. You can be a young, African American untenured professor and you’re still allowed to bring play, because it’s a human value that creates human connection.”

Some of the most common criticism of playful pedagogy Thomas has heard include time constraints, a fear of being perceived as unserious, and people from marginalized groups worried that using playful learning techniques would only serve to highlight their differences.

“Of course, these objections don’t have a lot to do with play itself,” Thomas said. “They have to do with how we have storied play in the status quo and ignore the ample evidence that playful pedagogy is effective.”

In February, Forbes and Thomas will advance their community of playful professors by hosting the Playposium 2024: Unleashing the Power of Play in Learning at Arizona State University’s California Center in Los Angeles. Since Professors at Play launched during the pandemic, this is the first year the playposium is happening in person. It’s open to all “playful (and play-curious)” faculty, administrators and staff who want to learn more about playful teaching and course and curriculum design, according to the event website.

Dr. Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist and founder of the National Institute for Play, is slated to speak at the event. His interest in the concept of play began in the 1960s, when he was serving on a commission to study the life and death of Charles Whitman, who shot and killed 15 people at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966 before police killed him.

“He had a very disturbed father who really suppressed his play,” Dr. Brown said. “The inability of this young man’s psyche to handle his violent urges was related to the lack of play that had characterized his entire life, even though he was a handsome and smart college student.”

Dr. Brown’s subsequent research has concluded that a deficit of play can have a negative effect on how people view the world and themselves. And that’s the message he wants the professors at the upcoming playposium to absorb.

“I want them to understand the importance of their play nature,” Dr. Brown said. “When they put their curriculum together with its engaging, playful components, their students will learn more and they will be happier as professors.”

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