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Play: An Unlikely Friend of Learning and Student Engagement [Learner Engagement Summit]

Brianna Bannach 0:05
Thank you for joining for play and unlikely friend of learning and student engagement presented by David Thomas and Lisa Forbes. Professors at Play, this is going to be a fun one. So buckle up and get ready for some fun. Thank you, David

Lisa Forbes 0:19
and Lisa.

David Thomas 0:21
Cool. Thanks so much. So Hi, I'm David Thomas. I'm the Executive Director of Online Programs at the University of Denver. And Lisa, do you want to introduce yourself?

Lisa Forbes 0:29
Sure, I'm Lisa Forbes. I'm an assistant clinical professor at the University of Colorado, Denver in the counseling program.

David Thomas 0:37
And we'll tell you a little bit more about professors at play at the end. But professors of play in general is a global community of like minded professors interested in using play as an intervention to improve higher education. And we invite you all to come play with us now. Because it's a short webinar. And you know, it's hard to play I was released, I might get bored. And so Lisa, I invented a game I didn't tell you about that you have to play during this session. And by the way, everyone else is welcome to play to you know, you can kind of help me hold Lisa honest. But um, so Lisa, this down here in the corner is you know, as the professors at play logo. Now, counting that logo, that's one, I have hidden, a certain number of logos in this presentation at the end of the presentation, you have to tell me how many logos there are. And she didn't know this. I added all these this morning. So you need to count and tell me and if you get them all these I'm gonna give you this sticker. It's a cool, I believe sticker. It's a it's a yeti sticker from the great divide. All right, so are you ready to play Lisa? Sure. And the audience members, please play along to maybe if you get it right to maybe, oh, maybe we'll mail some prizes out. We've been known to do that. So anyway, so play. Let's talk about play, shall we? Lisa? Um, I wanted to start with this. I'm using the Yellowdig platform. I was so excited to get to learn a little bit about it. I posted this poll. And I think it's an important poll, because this is what we see. Nobody seems to think that there's there's not, there's too much play. Nobody seems to think that they're playful enough. So I think Hey, welcome to this this talk, because we believe that there is a lot of opportunity to improve our teaching our student engagement and plays the intervention. So Lisa, maybe you could talk a little bit about this.

Lisa Forbes 2:16
Oh, that's backwards. Backwards. Cool. You're not supposed to see that part yet. Okay, so the title is play is an unlikely ally to student engagement and learning. And the reason why it's an unlikely ally is because in our culture, in academia, there's these preconceived ideas of play, where we think it's childish, it's trivial, it's unprofessional, people won't take me seriously, it's a waste of time. This is a serious subject, there's no time for play. So there's a lot of misunderstanding about it, which we think is a lot of BS, basically. So we're here today to talk to you about the power of play and how it can and should be included in all types of learning. But we're specifically here talking about adult learning.

David Thomas 3:05
So as a quick thought experiment, to kind of help everyone get in the mood for this. This is just a grid of potential people that you might meet in your life. And I just want you to follow me with this thought experiment. If I asked you, do you think you would get along with everyone on this slide? Would every one of these people be someone that you would, you know, enjoy meeting? Or, you know, maybe a thought experiment could be? Would you want to have dinner with every single one of these people? Would you enjoy that? Or be sitting next to them on a long intercontinental flight? Or how about trapped on a desert island? Think about it for a second. I think if you're honest, you'd say like, well, there's probably people on here that I would be more or less interested in spending a lot of time with, there are people here that I would be more or less connected to. There'll be people here that I'm more or less engaged with, because it's just how we are as humans, I mean, we jive with some people, we fall in love with some people, other people would just kind of don't get and we just don't care for that much. And that's cool. That's That's human nature. It's human nature, to find people that we are better connected to or less connected to. But I think that's an interesting thing. Because it turns out that if I were to pick any of these people on this grid, or in fact anyone and I handed both of you a ball and said, toss the ball back and forth, back and forth, pass the ball, play with each other. Three things will happen. Mirror neurons will fire in your brain, you will start to mirror each other's behavior, you will enter into a biochemical synchronization where actually your behaviors in addition to your biochemistry will synchronize and that you will start to feel a goodwill and an investment in the other person. These three characteristics are so powerful that the psychologist Barbara Friedrich someone who studies positive emotions says that those three those those three observable things are what she calls love to Dotto. She thinks that those things are so powerful that she has said that they're basically the penultimate positive emotion. So think about that for a second. Nature has given us a tool for engagement that is so powerful. It transcends culture, it transcends age, it transcends language, it even transcends species, you can play ball with the dog, and you can enter into the same phases. And so when we think about the question of engagement, when we talk about how do we engage our students, this is what we're used to seeing. We're used to seeing a big grid of people that other circumstances, we might find them more or less interesting, we might want to sit next to them on an intercontinental flight or not. But as teachers, we just kind of treat this as a kind of like a problem, we don't quite know how to engage this diversity of people. But again, I would emphasize to you through the thought experiment, there is a tool that we have available to us to connect to every single person and even more important to have these people who are all facing one direction, not paying attention to each other, connect with each other. Our premise then, is that the single best intervention we have in student engagement is play. So should we illustrate this Lisa?

Lisa Forbes 6:31
Why not? All right. You say go. Okay, so we're gonna play a video, watch it, listen to it, then I'm gonna ask you a couple questions. Oh

okay, so, in the chat, I want you to type what did you hear? And what did you see?

David Thomas 7:01
And I mean, I can kind of play the devil's advocate. Oh, readings are cheering here. people enjoying themselves cheering they hear cheering, applause saw board faces. Saw boredom. Here clapping see no response from people. hand clapping and cheering saw unenthused faces. Okay.

Lisa Forbes 7:23
Okay. So what you saw was an image that David and I found about what we would think of as a typical classroom. This is what I think a lot of people think learning is. I think if this is like a typical classroom, in any college across the nation, I would believe what you heard was actually, audio from one of my classes a couple years ago, we were doing an activity. And that's the type of engagement and connection that was created through play. And so you can just see the drastic differences. And I just think learning doesn't always have to be so serious. So there's just a little example there.

David Thomas 8:03
So at least you were you were letting your students play in class. And that's what it sounded like.

Lisa Forbes 8:08
Yes. And sometimes I walk out for break, and other faculty are like, I heard your students laughing. And they, and then they're, like, very confused. But it all has a point, which we'll describe here. Next. Yes. Because I

David Thomas 8:21
want to know, where are they actually learning anything?

Lisa Forbes 8:24
Well, there's, there's a lot to that. Okay, so I started using play in my teaching. And of course, I think it's amazing. But if it's not beneficial, and my students don't enjoy it, and also learn from it, then I shouldn't be doing it. So I designed a study to look at the value and the purpose of play and learning. And from my students voices. This is the model that kind of emerged. So the students said, when there was play and playfulness in the classroom, there was laughter and fun and novelty and excitement. When that was present. Two things happened first there, they said, there's this sense of relational safety in the classroom. It became this community where it was this warm, humanistic environment. They said, I felt like I belonged as a learner and I could trust my peers and I could trust my professor. The second thing that happened was, they said, when play was involved, it felt like it just removed or they didn't say remove barriers. They said, it reduced my stress, it reduced my anxiety or fear about making a mistake. I came in from a really stressful day and play just helped balance that out. So I was ready to learn I was ready to engage. When that happened, they said it awaken their motivation to learn. They said I just felt like the material was more intriguing. I was excited and energized. I was drawn to the challenge of learning versus focused on a grade. I just really enjoyed coming to class time. From that day. said they were more willing to be vulnerable engaged. And so play itself is engaging, it's hands on, it's active. But they also said, it allowed them to be more open, take more risks, persist more in their learning. In my, in my classes, we do a lot of role plays, because they're learning to be professional counselors. So I give them a lot of, you know, very direct and personal feedback. And so with play, I was able to actually give them some more difficult feedback, because they were more open to it, because their defenses were down, and they trusted me. And from that, they said, you know, we just learned more in the learning was more memorable. I felt like it was a more personal way of learning. Rather than just being told what to learn, I was navigated and learned what I needed to learn in that class. So all this happens from play. And I think when we talk about student engagement, that's what we want, right? People try to start there. But I think it's a problem. If we start there, we have to set the right foundation and classroom environment in order to earn that engagement. So I think play is the way to do that. So this is a

David Thomas 11:11
fantastic model, Lisa. And I think it helps show the complexity of play. And sometimes I think people think about play as this like this magic, you know, Pixie Dust, you can just sprinkle on learning. It feels like that sometimes, but it's very complex process. There's a lot to it, which then I think raises some questions, which are, how do you do this? If it's not just like, we don't we're not taught to do this? How do you do this? So through the professors of play work, Lisa and I have organized what we think of as kind of four levels of intervention that might help structure how you think about getting into play. And for the rest of this little talk, we want to go through this pyramid of play, and talk to you about how you build up to a kind of a full play perspective. So starting with becoming more playful yourself, through connection formers are icebreakers playing to teach content where a lot of people start, and then finally, the whole course design. So let's get into this and talk examples talk real world examples.

Lisa Forbes 12:15
So the first thing we think is vital is we ourselves as professors have to embody playfulness, if we're trying to do play, and we're overly rigid and serious, and take ourselves too seriously. It's not going to land and it's not going to be congruent. And so we asked our community, what are ways that you embody playfulness in the classroom. And here's some things that they gave as examples. Pretending via game show hosts creating memes dressing up, sharing parts of myself being a little a little more vulnerable, using music laughing at myself. Toys playdough fidgets starting off class with body shake, there's tons of examples of how playfulness can look. And it might look different for each person, because we're all different in how we are playful. So here's an example of something I did that I thought was a playful professor. We had class on Halloween in our classes are at night, so they're missing Halloween, if they have kids, they're missing, you know, their kids Halloween. So I came in and I created a Halloween photo booth, before class, they all come in, and they could take pictures and hang out and just have some fun. So it's just not a big thing. It didn't take a ton of time. But it's just a way to be a little more playful. And not so rigidly serious all the time. But to do this, we have to challenge those societal narratives that tell us, you can't be professional, if you're playful. Students will take advantage of you if you play. This is a serious subject, you don't have time for play. So I think maybe for each person looking at what are the narratives that you live by, consciously or subconsciously, and which of those can be challenged in order to bring a little playfulness into the room. And I think this is on a continuum. So you can play be like one barely playful, 10, extremely playful, you know, on that range. Everybody's going to be at a different level there. And not that we all have to be a 10 I think everybody gets to choose, it might be on your personal comfort level or you know how your students respond. But I think think about where you're at, and how can you move up one notch if you're wanting to be a little more playful.

David Thomas 14:37
And another thing that I would like to point out here too, because it comes up quite often is that sometimes people feel like being a playful professor is also linked to other kinds of privileges, tenure, age, gender, and we recognize that that sometimes if you feel marginalized, it might be more difficult to exhibit your playfulness and all we really coach there is to say, everyone has permission to play and it really is finding an area of play that's comfortable for you. So as you move up the pyramid, we get to the dreaded icebreaker. we've renamed these connection formers. Well, we know Lisa as a counselor, so she didn't like icebreakers. She's wanting to break things. She wants to build things. So, and she taught me this, and I love this. So we talked about this connection formers. And connection formers are the kinds of things that you just do at the beginning of class, which really, in our mind, don't have to, and by and large, probably shouldn't have anything to do with content, they're just to get people playing and connecting. Here's two quick examples of things that we have used both in the classroom as well as online. Lisa invented this thing called wacky questions, and without going too deep into it, and will tell you where you can get resources to look at this later. She'd have the students click on this, this virtual wheel and it would spin around and Oh, come on, Lisa, what's what's what's one? What's a really good wacky question from this wheel?

Lisa Forbes 16:03
Um, name everything you've done in a sink.

David Thomas 16:06
There you go. So now you got a student on the spot naming everything they've done in a sink. Or you can send a psychic message to every squirrel in the neighborhood. What do you tell them to do? Make an argument for why carrots are terrible. They're just wacky questions and students because the questions are so oddball there, there's not a pressure to get it right. They're not necessarily saying something like, what's your favorite travel destination, and if there's anything personal, but when you do this, you'll find the laughter comes naturally. And students ease into the idea that they can connect and share something that they can play together that they connect together. On the right is a game that's kind of it was a very, very popular web game after a while. And if you haven't played it, Flappy Bird, it's basically an impossible game. And I personally love to do this, I teach architectural design classes online sometimes. And I love to have these students who are taught to precision and accuracy, bunch of zoom screens, trying to play this impossible game at the same time. And it's hilarious, it's very funny watching them play a game that's built for failure. And again, as the team, as soon as the class fails, together, they connect together, and it's a lot of fun. Now, we don't have a particular, you know, high and low quality of connection formers, we just think anything that gets the students talking, connecting and playing together, is a wonderful soil to start planting seeds at teaching.

Lisa Forbes 17:28
And one thing I want to say real quick, on that connection former slide is, this is often what faculty miss, because they think, Oh, this is a waste of time, this has no connection to my content. I'll do this on the first night. But after that, we're going to do the serious learning, I do a connection for almost every single class session. And the reason is, if you remember that model, it starts with play, and it sets a foundation. So if I do play on the first day of class, and then we are serious the rest of the time, it's not going to foster that right environment for continued engagement, and that whole power of play model. So actually, I think people are like, well, I can't waste time on that I have too many, too many objectives to hit too much to teach. I found that actually, if you spend a little bit of time on play, it actually makes the learning accelerated and quicker and deeper. Because the students defenses are dropped, they're more willing, they're more engaged. And so I think if you can, quote unquote, waste some time, 10 minutes, three minutes on play at the start of class, it's actually going to make the learning process easier.

David Thomas 18:39
Perfect, quick anecdote. I was teaching a summer class, I forgot to do the the connection form or one day, I was so busy to get to content, and the students were like, well, well, where's our fun activity? They were like, like, we're not going to do anything until we have fun. So lovely. Speaking of content,

Lisa Forbes 18:59
okay, so play to teach content. I think this is mostly what faculty look for is how do I teach what I need to teach playfully? So here's some examples. The first one is, if David can press the I don't know what we're doing here. And there we go. Case study. In my program, case studies are huge. In mental health counseling, I'm sure in other programs as well, they get pretty routine. They're pretty dry, pretty straightforward. I found that students kind of disengage and it becomes kind of obligatory. So what I did was, instead of a typical case study, I turned the case study into a draft is the client. And this is from a children's book called drafts can't dance. And so what I do is I read my students, master's level students, adults, I read them the children's book dress can't dance. And then I created a client profile based on Gerald the giraffe and I looked up real facts about drafts and kind of turn Turn them into reasons why this person might or this animal might receive counseling. So it's just a much more playful and novel way of looking at a case study. And so the students then take the profile client profile. And I asked them, Kay from this from your theoretical lens, what do you make of this client's presenting problem? How would you treat this client create a treatment plan for this client. So it's a playful way, but also a serious way to learn what they need to learn. We're not goofing around, we're really doing what we need to do, looking through theoretical lens of, you know, creating treatment plans, but it's just more novel. And I found that when it's a draft, to my knowledge, nobody's counseled a draft before. So there's no quote unquote, right way to do that. So client, students minds are kind of freed up to think more creatively and outside the box, because they're not worried about getting it wrong. So that's one example. Small group discussion, this is pretty typical. I found when I say okay, get in small groups and discuss blah, blah, blah, they kind of turned to each other with like this iral. What are we talking about? So making it more playful, get students engaged in those conversations. And there's a lot of different ways you can do this. One of them I, I turned it into a Martian mission. And I created a video of myself as the like, lead Martian. And the groups were Martians who were sent to earth to solve this problem. And it was about like, why parents lose empathy for their kids in one of my classes. This example here is I have them talk about David Keaney. President Excellent. Um, I have them talk about self disclosure in therapists, like why should we do it? When should we do it? What are the pros? What are the cons, and then after that discussion, I have them create five golden rules for self disclosure. And then each of the five points must create an acrostic. So an acrostic is what you see here, cats, and each thing stands for a certain thing. So the most creative wins a prize. And if it's like a game or a competition, students really get into it more so than just like this dry, mundane group discussion. And then handouts, we have this really important handout, in counselling called the feeling wheel. And it's vital for a lot of reasons, which you don't need to know now. But what I found in the past, I handed it to the students and I said, this is really important. And I explained why look at it, no it, what they did is they tuck it in their binder, and they never look at it again. And then when they get to practicum, they can't think of a feeling word beyond you feel sad. So I turned it into a game. So instead of giving them the feeling, we'll complete it, and they don't look at it. I give them a blank feeling wheel, and I put them in teams, it becomes a competition. They have eight minutes to fill in as many synonyms for each core feeling word as they can. So for SAT, how many synonym words can you fill in for that. So it's just a really fun way to get them engaged and get them thinking about the feeling words instead of just looking at it and memorizing.

David Thomas 23:18
So what's exciting about to me about the play to teach content, and again, we're gonna talk more about the techniques that we've collected. This is just a quick sampling from a counseling Master's, a little counseling class. And when people say my discipline is too important to be playful, I'm like, what's more life and death and in mental health counseling, it turns out that the play helps create better students, which means better professionals, better counselors. And again, this is just a sampling, you could say, Well, where are the games? Where's gamification, we try to steer away from some of that, because we like picking things that are very non obvious play, to sort of say play is that that joyful, ambiguous problem solving that, that working together that human connection. And I love these examples, because they may not be the sorts of things I would use in my class. But they inspire me to think very creatively about how I teach.

Lisa Forbes 24:14
And one thing real quick, that David reminded me of is, sometimes people say, will I teach a very serious topic? How can I play that'll make light of the topic. And I think you have to be intentional and mindful about where you insert play. So these examples, I think, are appropriate to insert play. We in counseling, do role plays where we are role playing with a suicidal client, and we are assessing them for their suicidal ideation. That is completely serious, and very triggering for a lot of students. And so we I don't turn that into play. A role play is play, but it's not fun play. It's not silly play. So I think there's different times when I use it. So in terms of that when we're assessing for Sue Seidel ideation I don't make that play. But I'm make a point to do a very playful light connection former at the start of that class to relax students get them ready for that serious discussion.

David Thomas 25:15
So as we ascend the tower of playful pedagogy, we get to the whole course design. And this is the idea that can you have play embedded in throughout your course and in a very systematic way. And I want to offer you two quick examples from where I work at University of Denver. The first example is an administrative law class taught in our law school. Now, if you're not familiar with administrative law, it's a form of governmental law around regulations and contracts and such. I mean, sounds very, very boring. Well, we have a professor here Roberto Corrado, that decided he would teach administrative law this way, the first day of class, he tells the students you will read Jurassic Park by Michael Creighton, not watch the movie, but read the book. And then the entire semester, as they learn about administrative law, they have to write legal briefs on how to regulate an extinct animal park. And he will tell you, he's gotten many funny looks as he starts his class. But by the end of it, students are turning in 4050 Page legal briefs on the complexities of international law and OSHA, and HIPAA and everything else that would go into if you actually had to regulate an extinct animal park. I don't know about you, I never thought for a moment I would want to take a class and administrative law. But now I'm going to see if I can't sneak into one of his classes because I am dying to learn how to administer a extinct animal park. On the right here in this little floating boat with the word Bob on it. You probably don't know this, but this is the Associate Vice Provost of graduate education at the University of Denver, also known as my boss, also known as the teacher of a first year seminar about pirates. Dr. Miller here is obsessed with pirates. And he teaches his first year seminar that explores the history of piracy, the political environment of piracy, the myths of piracy, a lot about the science behind things like boats. And so the final project in this course was the students had to actually design and build boats, and perhaps a little bit jokingly, but he said, If I can paddle across the pool and not get wet, you pass the class. So here we are Captain Miller, navigating Bob across the swimming pool, and talk about a wonderful engagement with a analytical chemist as a first year experience. It's a wonderful class that explores lots and lots of dimensions of learning. And it really brings learning to light. Now, these are just two examples. And we have more and more of those examples collected. In fact, Lisa, I think we should tell them where we've hidden all these wonderful examples

Lisa Forbes 27:59
in a book, but while you were chatting with that last slide, I posted a couple links in the chat with resources, answering some of the questions I saw came through. We'll give you some more information on professors at play here in a sec. But this actually, David, did you see the email just come through?

David Thomas 28:19
Did it is it done? Is it out?

Lisa Forbes 28:21
It's live. Just got posted today. So we're excited about that. This is our professors that play playbook. It's real techniques that professors have done. We asked our professors that play community which we have 750 faculty across the world in our listserv group, we asked them, hey, submit your ideas of how you're using play in your classrooms. And if you remember that pyramid of play that they would describe being playful ourselves connection formers play to teach content, of course design. We've broken up the chapters in those sections. And so people submitted ideas for each of those sections. So it's hopefully helpful. We kind of add some information about the powerplay and our thinking around that and then give some techniques. So

David Thomas 29:11
and by the way, since we did this book through Carnegie Mellon's, etc press it's available in print in in ebook format, but it's also freely downloadable as a PDF. So we're not here shilling for our book as much as we're trying to share all this wonderful information. So log on, download a copy and get to play. So to wrap things up, Lisa, first of all, first of all with this, this is our website, our YouTube channel or Insta, Facebook and Twitter, we invite you to join us. Basically, we run a website and Alyssa we have events. Everything in general is is free or low cost. We're doing this to share the important message of play. And so we'd love to have you join us. So you can log on to the site and find out more. But what I want to know Elise is how many professors or play logos did you see in this this presence? occasion,

Lisa Forbes 30:00
I got distracted, but I think 12

David Thomas 30:05
Well, oh, and I forgot we haven't got to the question slide yet. So how many logos? Well, there's way more than 12

Lisa Forbes 30:14
Oh, gosh. That's not fair.

David Thomas 30:19
There's 11 logos at you. That's very close, though. Anyone in the chat? Did anyone get you get that? Yes, you love it? Amy got 11 I think you need to, you need to email us your your, your address, and we're going to send you some prize. That's what I was saying. Okay, and then there's 44 here, but all right. So we did this on time. We have we have four minutes for questions. I think there's a couple in the q&a. Do you want to tackle those, Lisa?

Lisa Forbes 30:47
Let's see. Playing online courses, I posted a link in the chat with some articles about that. I don't know how much time we have here to explain that. But basically, it's the same thing. But you just have to think about it differently in terms of digital access. So we have the internet as one platform, you have the students environment as another. So kind of work with what you think they have there. There's some more specific examples within that article that I posted. But I don't know, I think it's mostly about creativity and just trying things out doing things in a novel way. So I don't know, David, if you want to add anything.

David Thomas 31:33
Yeah, a lot of the techniques in the book are very portable. So for example, one of our playful professors during COVID, she would do a screen background, and then a costume every time she lectured. So one day, She's the lady from the tiger King the next time she's, you know, one of the aliens from Toy Story. And you know, of course, you could do that in the classroom, you could come in in a costume, but you know, it's a little easier to do online. The wacky questions wheel that we showed you that actually started out as a game Lisa called sticky hands, where all the cards were printed out. And she'd give you one of those children's sticky hands here to go to the front of the class and whack a card with a sticky hand to make the selection. So again, it's it's kind of like just shifting the playfulness to different affordances. You know, if you want to have students have computers out in the class, you can play games or video games or in the classroom, you can throw things around toss things. We didn't at least what didn't you have some game that involve the students throwing things at you? Oh, yeah.

Lisa Forbes 32:28
Yeah, a lot of things, paper airplanes, wadded up balls of paper, one hit me straight in the middle of the forehead. And we got a good laugh about that.

David Thomas 32:38
So Tony, I think we might have answered your question, which is, yes, the book is full of techniques that really span modalities. And again, it usually comes down to being flexible about how to do that. Like one other example would be escape rooms. There are a couple of examples of digital escape rooms where teachers are doing online, you know, scavenger hunts, and escape rooms. But the teachers also talk about how they've done that in their live classrooms. So again, it's more about creativity. It's about play. And and I'll just say this is kind of a closing remark for myself. It's about taking a risk being a little bit silly. And when the students lean in, and you hear that laughter that you've never really heard in a lecture classroom, you'll know you're winning.

Brianna Bannach 33:30
I love that laughter is a great thing to hear in a lecture, I would say for sure. Thank you both. This was a really fun session. I learned a lot and and we really appreciate you taking the time to join us. Thank you all and please find a way to have some fun today.

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