The Hull team arriving at the Playful Learning Conference, 13-15 July 2016.
On arrival* participants were inducted into the marble game which ran throughout the three days. Clutching our marble winnings we were able to register and inspect the construction – a bit like mousetrap for marbles – which we were invited to add components to.
This was supplemented with text message tasks and challenges in return for – yes – more marbles. It was indicative of the amazing amount of preparation work which must have gone into planning and setting up the Playful Learning Conference.
Everywhere you looked on the Spanish Steps on the ground floor of MMU’s Birley Campus there was something to do.
The steps homed an assortment of objects and board games while over on the registration desk the ‘Sea You Sea Me’ activity buckets were waiting. Each bucket contained 30 items, all designed for teams to create a beach (with real sand, shells and water!) while having conversations and solving puzzles. 30 buckets = 900 individual component parts! Did I mention the phenomenal amount of work which went into setting up this conference?
Three Keynotes over three days and a total of 25 parallel sessions were interspersed with whole conference activities like the Storybook. I wish I’d recorded Nikky’s vibrant retelling of the process of creating stories. It ended too soon.
Unsurprisingly Storybook involved yet another set of challenges. This time it was to unlock the chest whose treasures included a set of keys for yet more games!
It was difficult to choose from the variety of parallel sessions; I went to six in total. Having recently experienced Lego Serious Play, https://digitalacademicblog.wordpress.com/2016/06/17/bricking-it, I was interested to compare this with the PlayDoh Plaza. Maybe it’s in the name but it felt strange to be asked to take part in activities so reminiscent of childhood yet they were both underpinned with constructionist and kinaesthetic pedagogies. When PlayDog was introduced to bio-medical students they’d also been unsure. The words in the images below show their feelings before and after a PlayDoh session. It shows the value of being prepared to try something different. We were asked to choose a colour and make a model which represented our work. The purple chains are my digital networks while the face is the digital monster – the one which appears in our worst technology nightmares when everything goes wrong in front of a room full of students. Interestingly, everyone I spoke to knew exactly what this felt like!
It was a time of new discoveries. I came across the word Shonky, discovered Makey Makey clips, answered questions with clues gained from QR Codes, used Poll everywhere and competed in a quiz using Kahoot. One of the most memorable workshops was Ugg-Tect; a game which uses gestures instead of words to give instructions for building models from coloured shapes. Ungungdo!
I also learned about data encryption; one of those topics you know about without really understanding the detail. We began with the Caesar Cypher; a mono alphabetic transposition code (and we got to keep the encryption wheels). We then moved onto the Diffie-Hellman Ken Exchange to generate an encryption key which was theoretically more difficult to intercept. This used an app which didn’t seem to be working as well as it could do or maybe it was just the digital monster rearing its scary PlayDoh head again!
Other sessions included a digital form of Exquisite Corpse as an aid to creative storytelling, the application of pedagogical theory to a teaching practice card game, and exploring creative methods for solving learning and teaching problems. These involved dressing up (hat and sunglasses to go incognito), choosing objects (it had to be the ammonite) and making things (not sure what my pipe cleaner mesh represented but I found it therapeutic to shut out the world and focus on its construction).
There were also the escape room experiences, the Board Game Cafe demonstrations, different sporting activities including Neon Badminton, and Inbox Zero – which I missed completely – as well as the Treasure Hunt on the last morning. Meanwhile the marble challenges continued to run alongside everything else.
By the end of the conference I’d joined in so many different activities yet still only experienced a part of the whole event. I’d arrived with a number of questions about the role of play in learning and teaching e.g. how digital would it be, had the organisers assumed we’d all have wifi connected devices, how inclusive and accessible were the activities, as a non-game player would I have ‘fun’ and above all else what would I learn.
Play is a misnomer. Because of its association with fun and games, rather than the ‘serious’ business of higher education, you almost need to ‘permission’ to do something so different. Yet what is play other than an alternative way to describe creative approaches to learning and teaching? Getting around the discontinuity can be a simple as re-framing an activity within a pedagogical theory. Maybe we need to find more ways to play in disguise!
Stepping outside the box – or recreating the size and shape of the box – can often mean taking a risk but if we don’t take risks now and then, everything stays the same. It’s only by challenging ourselves that we can develop and grow. A key message I took away was how it can be good to venture outside your comfort zones and do something you wouldn’t normally do. A ‘feel the fear and do it’ scenario. Only then do you discover what feels strange at first can soon become normalised if we repeat it often enough. The conference participants were a unique mix. They included computer scientists, gamers, creative writers and other artists, academics, academic developers and librarians. This made for some interesting exchanges of thoughts and experiences.
I’ve taken away not only new connections but reinforcement of the value of having time and space to discuss learning and teaching. I loved how the parallel sessions were so interactive. There was very little traditional sitting and listening and I don’t think I’ve been to such an activity based conference before. For me, this definitely added to its value. With regards to the play element, if you interpret this as creative thinking then all educational conferences would benefit from its inclusion. At minimum it could be a strand or a themed component while at best it would be threaded throughout.
When we engage with ‘playful’ situations we seemed to have more discussion than we would have otherwise. It was particularly useful for beginning and continuing conversations with strangers. Whether you were staff or student facing, involved in supporting the student experience or working with CPD/academic practice elements, there was something at Playful Learning for everyone. It was an inaugural conference. For something so new and innovative, this first time around felt like a resounding success. I’m sure I’m not the only one to hope there will be more to come.
- Storify Day One https://storify.com/suewatling/playlearn16-day-1-ucisa
- Storify Day Two https://storify.com/suewatling/day-two
- Storify Day Three https://storify.com/suewatling/day-three-storify-playlearn16
My thanks to UCISA for the bursary which funded my attendance.