The importance of play: what universities can learn from preschools

Back to basics. Sergey Novikov/

Almost as soon as they begin school, children start getting tested. With the introduction of tests for four-year-olds and the explicit link between test results and school performance, education policies of successive governments have led to an increased emphasis on results at all levels of schooling.

This focus has led to a stigmatisation of failure, even though it is fundamental to the learning process from preschool all the way to university.

This ill-prepares learners for real life, which does not provide set answers to problems with neat scores to gauge progress. The real world is messy and diverse, and young people need to be creative, resourceful and resilient to succeed in it. One of the best ways to achieve this is through play.

The best kind of learning is “intrinsically motivated”, where students want to learn because it is interesting, purposeful and personally relevant, not because it is assessed. Learning takes place through action, failure, reflection, and practice. But while making mistakes is an inevitable part of this process, our school system fails to recognise this.

Exam grades are often seen as more important than fostering a love of learning – and as a result schools are overlooking the value of learning that does not fit into a specified curriculum.

When students reach university, most have learned that grades (and their impact on job opportunities) are of prime importance. For many, the magic of learning out of interest and passion has been eclipsed. The introduction of tuition fees has only increased the expectation that the role of university is to provide qualifications rather than focus on the intrinsic value of education.

This shift in expectation is hardly surprising given that students have to consider their personal investments and the returns they are likely to receive. This makes perfect sense for an individual student, but does not take into account what is best for society, which needs people to be creative and take risks, not simply focus on scoring highly in a test.

The need to fail

While many students fail university modules and drop out of courses, this is often seen as a last resort and universities are becoming increasingly averse to failing their students. A focus on one-shot assessments does not give students opportunities to fail regularly on a less catastrophic level.

The ability to manage failure, both emotionally and practically, increases the ability to manage risk. It is only by taking risks that we can explore new possibilities and ways of thinking. We are in danger of creating a generation of risk-averse students. The possibility of failure can also actually increase a person’s intrinsic motivation: if success is certain, there is little challenge and so little motivation.

One way to develop a generation who can take risks is through playful learning. Play supports socialisation and decreases stress, develops imagination and creativity, enables learners to have new experiences, and learn from their mistakes.

While it is integral to early years education, a focus on assessment has all but driven play out of schools. The relative flexibility of higher education curricula and teaching approaches provide opportunities to give learners chances to play, experiment, experience, and fail – and, most importantly, learn from those failures.

Make it worth their while. JHershPhoto/

Playtime at university

Several UK universities are already embracing elements of playful learning. For example, the University of Portsmouth uses “pervasive learning” activities, where courses are taught through playful, detailed simulations in which students work together to solve problems and make mistakes away from the real consequences of assessment.

The Great History Conundrum at the University of Leicester, which runs every year for first-year students, uses an online puzzle-solving card game to teach critical historical literacy. Students play as long as they like to collect enough points to pass the course: if they fail on one puzzle they can move on to the next.

Students at Manchester Metropolitan University play the Staying the Course game during induction to highlight the range of university support available. The University of Brighton has also used alternate reality games during induction, which allow students to work together to solve online and physical puzzles, and large-scale multi-player quizzes to engage new students and orientate them to university life in novel ways.

These kind of approaches do not work in every context, and will inevitably meet resistance from some students and academics. We have to make the case that far from trivialising education, playful learning makes it richer, more purposeful, and more useful for life after education.

Playful learning is not an easy option. It is more academically challenging, making students less reliant on rote learning and established ideas. To embrace playful learning, we need to create more opportunities for students to fail safely and focus on the development of intrinsic motivation, passion and curiosity. Crucially, we must radically rethink how, and why, we assess our students.