Playful Course Design

As someone with a recent background of scholarly writing, I had to overcome my unconscious assumptions that scholarly meant minimal “fun” or “play-based” interactions. After a few psychology and technology courses, I realized there was a smaller divide than I originally assumed. I spent a lot of time trying to find ways to investigate and discuss learning and cognition theories to fulfill my course requirements, but for a long time ignored the obvious truths behind why I wanted to study learning in the first place—witnessing learning either intentionally or unintentionally in various forms of play. 

As a mom, I watch my young children learn more on impromptu adventures to the store than sitting at a desk. As a college student I witnessed amazing amounts of learning and retention in people learning games such as Magic the Gathering and World of Warcraft. These situations create a space for interaction that contains its own culture and rules the individual needs to abide by. They also require a significant amount of cognitive demand, and the learners have to progress through different phases of experimentation and risk taking to become experts and be able to play, learn, and sustain involvement in these communities.

Working in the field of instructional design, I try to imagine how to integrate these forms of learning into structured learning environments. The increased motivation the students have when their mind taps into the cognitive processes associated with play is a great tactic to increase enjoyment and retention. But, while there is extensive discussion about gamification of learning environments, the way play can be implemented is often considered covered by including a game, and any futher thought into the theories behind play is left in the discussion about development and instruction for young children. 

Defining Play 

Play becomes a great concept to describe a mentality in all learning design—not just games. I want to investigate how these playful ideas can even be integrated into higher education or corporate learning environments. With play, learning is based on how the learner is able to interact with their environment: is there room for exploration or the creation of new mental models by experimentation or risk-taking? 

As Thomas Hendricks puts in his article about Play as Self-Realization, “Play by contrast, is preoccupied with issues of goal attainment. That is to say, play facilitates individuals’ learning to identify goals and to coordinate the many self qualities that are pertinent to achieving these ends. Play, at both the individual and social levels practices and refines capability” (Henricks, 210).

When we examine play with this definition, it not only opens up how we view the learning environment, but also is a reminder for one of the reasons why learning is so fascinating, before getting preoccupied with making it into a streamlined quantitative process because of stakeholder needs. It helps us become reacquainted with the raw complexity and fascination found in the learning process. By applying the ways people learn outside of the classroom for their passions, we can develop more effective instruction to improve everyone’s experience. With our course design, we can give learners permission to play and create a natural learning environment—by reminding them why they are interested in this information in the first place.

Play in all Learning Environments 

Let’s examine how play is quantified in a learning environment. Many are aware of names such as Lev Vygotsky and his zone of proximal development or Jean Piaget and the way learners progress through the childhood stages of development, where play is a mechanism of healthy growth and challenge for the learner. 

So that raises the question, why does play stop at adulthood?

In these examples, we find play is not constrained by a certain activity or environment. Instead, play becomes a learning model which includes learner-led exploration into the ideas and concepts of the material, allowing learners to experiment with and challenge their capabilities to add to the discussion and their own understanding. 

There has been significant research and discussion done with similar ideas in mind analyzing the role that games can have in learning —both face-to-face and online. Dave even wrote about implementing game design to your course. These game-based interactions can provide insight into how to implement playful design principles, but we also need to acknowledge the learning processes and retention of our learners, and how that should define our material. While games and play are often intertwined, there are core differences between including a game to fulfill multiple forms of representation and designing activities around the ideas of playful learning. 

So, beyond just adding games to check off our list of items to include to facilitate learning, we can then investigate the idea of play in its cognitive form and how it can be implemented in each unique learning environment. 

In higher education, play is not always thought of as easily integrated into a Learning Management System (LMS). The rules and design already associated with an LMS and the rules and design often associated with the word play may seem in conflict. But, what if we actively pursue using the same ideals which play employs? 

That’s where we find similar ideas that we care about: accessibility, adaptivity, learner-centered, Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, and scaffolding. An example: the authors are discussing game design and describing the process of game development, “game designers use behaviorist elements, cognitivist elements, and constructivist elements, and often various combinations of them, in the design of games for learning” (Gentile, Groves, Gentile, 261). We should be open to finding the ideals of interaction and engagement we strive to employ no matter what theory they stem from, and piece together what instruction looks like from there. 

Applying Play to your Course Design

While it is unlikely that a student will view an online university (or corporate training) course the same way as an interactive game, we can employ elements that will add dimension and room for creativity. It could be as simple as having a group research project. Students will need to interact with each other and the research to find collaborative solutions. By ocassionally removing strict guidelines, it transforms this into a play experience. Let learners determine the problem and develop the project based on passions and preferences within the topic guidelines. Watch how much more the student engages in the material. 

Another route is to examine the design of a seminar course. Let the student design a discussion for a week or let the employee choose what needs covered for part of the training. See how in-depth it can become or how passionate the learners are about their topic. The focus becomes resolving a problem thay have found to be a roadblock to their understanding and exploration to resolve it in a more autonomous fashion. They begin to take risks and push the boundaries of their understanding when given this freedom.

When students interact with the material beyond just receiving it and repeating it back, we increase their commitment to the material through various forms of collaboration, reflection, and challenge through assignments, research, and discussion. Student motivation (which Ann discussed in her post about the ARCS model) increases through giving learners a need for ownership of the material by being held accountable for it. At the same time, we need to remind them why this is interesting through their own discovery. 

It’s easy to get lost in the monotony of needing to just complete the course for credit. As designers and instructors, we need to reignite that passion that led the students to this program, or create interest in the ideas through the activities chosen and by giving them space to explore the concepts and problems that interest them. Additionally, we need be careful to not create too much “filler” content and overwhelm the learner. Instead, we need to give them meaningful opportunities where the student can explore and struggle to push and expand their understanding. We need to remember learning principles are not context dependent, but how we engage in and implement the learning principles can vary. While doing this, we begin to define environments and experiences based on how learners engage with information, thus flipping the idea that learners need to accommodate us in the design of lecture (in its various online formats) and repeat back in assessment. 

Play is more than a board game or role-play. The ideas behind play and why it is so meaningful transcend those mediums and can be applied even in a college level course by trying to match the cognitive processes employed under the blanket of “play”, not just by adding games. 

Think about your learning programs and decide what are the ideals that define this material. How are we translating this information? Is it based on how the learner is motivated and curious? These questions are a great starting point for a play-based model of instruction. 


Plass, J. L., Homer, B. D., & Kinzer, C. K. (2015) Foundations of Game-Based Learning. Educational Psychologist, 50(4), 258-283. DOI: 10.1080/00461520.2015.1122533

Henricks, T. S. (2014) Play as self-realization: toward a general theory of play. American Journal of Play, 6(2), 190-213. Retrieved from

Author: Jessica Pierce, Instructional Designer

Jess enjoys the science behind learning and cognition and how it applies in multiple modalities, including eLearning. In the off hours, she likes spending time with her husband and three kids, going out for coffee, or running the occasional road race for the “free” shirt (to counteract the caffeine).

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