Playful Learning: The seriousness of fun

Image generated by AI

’Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.’

Albert Einstein

In today’s blog post we are going to embark on an adventure into the wonderful world of Playful Learning! What is that I hear you ask wonderful imaginary audience, well Playful Learning is a pedagogical theory examining how the act of play can be applied to education. Anyone who’s ever watched a toddler examining the world will know that the act of playing is vital to our early life learning, but can the act of playing be applied to the Higher Education field? Yes, I believe it can and in this blog post I will attempt to convince you why that is the case.

So, lets dive a bit deeper into what Playful Learning actually is. Essentially, it’s the idea that when students are actively engaged in enjoyable and meaningful experiences their capacity for learning and retention increases.

Play vs work or fun vs seriousness.

There is often a false dichotomy whereby anything that is playful or fun is seen as the opposite of work and seriousness, the idea being that they are opposite spheres that cannot intersect, if you are having fun then what you are doing cannot be serious, if you are playing then you are not working But this is clearly rubbish, we often do our best work when we are fully engaged and indeed having fun, it’s a win-win for everyone except for antiquated ideas. All intelligent life on earth appears to engage in play and humans engage the most in play, there’s strong evidence that from an evolutionary stance the act of play has helped create our current intelligence.

This is not to say that we must always be playing and having fun, sometimes there are areas of life which we will find boring, but we must pursue them anyway, rather the idea is to minimise these areas where we can.

There is also something to be said for subjective experiences, what one person considers fun may be anathema to someone else. I find it fun to run for many miles in the rain across the Downs but I’m sure that’d be torture to someone else. No-one wants to be forced into a ’fun‘ experience they won’t enjoy. So Playful Learning is not always the solution for every use case, but it does have its place and some key benefits. below:

Engagement and motivation

We all learn best when we are engaged and indeed often the hardest part of learning is getting students to the point at which they are fully engaged, when they have intrinsic motivation to pursue a subject and learn as much as they can. What causes us to be unengaged when attempting to learn? Usually, it’s being bored and so losing any motivation to continue. But if we are having fun then our engagement increases, we can stay engaged for longer periods and develop a deeper understanding of our subject.

Play can give agency to students, allowing them direct choice over how they engage with and respond to a Playful Learning activity. This can give students a strong feeling of empowerment and agency allowing them to decide on their own approach, vital to ensuring consistent engagement.

Curiosity, creativity, and the acceptance of failure

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut when dealing with knowledge and learning. Being playful can often be novel and foster a sense of exploration and trying things out, this enables students to examine new and innovative approaches.

Tied to this is creating an environment where failure is accepted as a vital part of the learning process, which is important as failure will frequently be encountered when learning anything. If you have a more ’serious‘ environment then students may end up being more risk adverse and will fear failure, for example the student that does not want to answer a question posed in a classroom as they worry about the risk of feeling stupid in front of their peers. Play can help overcome this, enabling students to feel safe to take risks, learn from their failures and build a level of resilience within a playful environment.

Even as a teacher, when you attempt to run Playful Learning activities they hold an element of risk, they may go well but, in some cases, they may be a failure. Leading by example to show your students it’s okay to try and fail sometimes and to just accept and learn from our failures allows our students to do the same. You can change the framing of failure from a negative to a positive.  

Encouraging active participation and collaboration

Too often learning can be a passive process, students simply listening to someone talk. We know this is not the best way to learn, rather we want students to be active within the learning process. Play can help to encourage this as by its nature it must be active and whilst it can be done alone it’s far more likely to be a collaborative activity where students can all engage together in an activity such as a simulation, a game, or a building activity. If students are having fun, then they are also more likely to work together.

Play allows students safer ways of working together, having fun together and learning to work as a team and collaborate. Reluctance to engage in collaborative activities can often be overcome with a fun or playful activity that reduces some of the stress that can arise during collaborative activities.


The present state of the world is filled with stress and divisions in many ways, and this has an effect on the teaching environment, but we can in some ways help to counteract this by creating a playful space within our teaching. In a world overshadowed by war, pandemics, advancing AI, and societal breakdown, it can’t hurt us to embrace a sense of playfulness.

If you’d like help exploring or using Playful Learning in your teaching, please get in touch with Educational Enhancement at  

Tagged with:
Posted in Learning Design

About our blog

We are the Educational Enhancement team at the University of Sussex. We publish posts each week on using technology to support teaching and learning. Read more about us.

Subscribe to the Blog

Enter your email address to receive notifications of new posts by email.