Posted by on May 16, 2018 at 1:50 pm

Andrew Walsh

Andrew Walsh, National Teaching Fellow and Academic Librarian


As part of my research into play and learning in adults, I’ve been considering the problem of ‘permission to play’.

Young children (and animals) play without prompting, and it can be seen as the primary way in which they learn social and survival skills. Play allows them to practice these skills that they will depend on as they get older in a low risk environment.

Not the author!

Not the author!

By the time we’re adults, however, play becomes transgressive, except in strictly defined settings. A four year old can walk down the road in a batman costume and fight imaginary villains as she goes, gaining smiles and approval from spectators as she does. A forty year old doing the same would be unlikely to gain the same positive approval. The difference between them isn’t the activity, it’s the way society views such behaviour in different groups and contexts.

We see children’s play through a difference lens to adult play.

Adult play is allowed, but it tends to have strictly defined settings. The type of ‘make believe’ play described above could be seen as belonging in the theatre, so joining an amateur dramatic society gives us permission to indulge in that sort of behaviour there. Buying toys is seen as childish, but being a ‘collector’ of toys is grown-up. Chasing your friends around playing tig is fine for children, but adults may need the structure of a ‘proper’ sport to do the same, so may join a sports club instead for the same sort of fun.


Goffman (1986) would refer to ‘frames’ in describing this difference, where we build models of socially expected behaviour in our head that allow us to interpret our experience. These expectations then give us permission (or not) for certain types of behaviour. For instance, we are often conditioned into being quiet in libraries, so you can frequently see people becoming quieter when they walk into a bookshop, as the book lined shelves encourage that transfer of frame from one setting to another.


I believe that play has significant benefits in post compulsory education, but by the time we leave school we are already conditioned to behave in certain ways in educational settings, which the learning spaces themselves often reinforce. When we walk into a lecture theatre, the social behaviour we feel is expected of us is to sit passively and wait for knowledge to be fed to us. Goffman, (1986) talks about ‘keying’, social prompts, words and actions, shifting the frame through which we see a setting. So prompting from lecturers can help us reframe an educational setting, but it is often too big a leap to allow us to play comfortably, with too many existing prompts, or keys, from ourselves and others pulling us in an opposite direction. We need more alibis to play (Deterling, 2017) that will allow us to escape the social embarrassment of behaving inappropriately.
I have limited answers so far, but I’m currently building pictures of how we can effectively key, or prompt, the reframing of learning environments into ones where we readily give learners permission to play.

Planning escape rooms

A playful bunch of Finnish Librarians, creating educational escape rooms, Helsinki 2017.


What shifts do we need to make in physical environments, lesson structures, learning expectations, which will make it embarrassing to be passive, to not play, so that play, and it’s associated learning benefits, emerge naturally?


That is the challenge I’m playing with at the moment. I’d welcome working with anyone who may be thinking on similar problems, as I’m at the stage where I have tentative frameworks and have started to draft conference (I’m presenting at Higher Education Advances Conference in June – pre-print of the paper available here) and journal papers… the playtesting stage, if you like. So join in with my playtesting, break the early ideas and help me come up with something better!


Posted in Post-Compulsory Education (PCET)


  1. Sara says:

    Hey Andrew, great blog. I’m a hugely passionate believer in the power of play on post compulsory and adult learning. You may find interesting work relating to what your looking at in the ESOL/EFL sphere when permission to play and engaging in play is often the norm. My personal view as to why this occurs is that it is partly the result of the educator creating the conditions but also the learners ability to ‘leave their “grownup self” at the door. I believe that these conditions can be replicated in other learning environments (I work a lot in the OD sphere and always try to create a playful environment (made easier by the fact that a large amount of my work is in Asia where I findlearnera more receptive to playful methods)) I’m back in the UK in June and would love to chat to you about your work.

  2. Maria Kukhareva says:

    Hi Andrew,
    Thank you for this post – I follow your work and I agree a lot with what you are saying – I have been developing and adapting arts- and drama- based pedagogical approaches, so definitely belong to the crowd of the ‘converted’.
    So, yes, there is an issue of ‘permission’ and how we define which type of activity is for adults or children only

    I have an observation / speculation I’d like to add to the mix:

    I also think (wonder?), however, that there is more ‘play’ in the grownup world than we may think – or at least elements of play – including in places where we are not looking. For example, consider very ‘grownup’ activity of managing projects and people, navigating multi-layered landscapes of HE, responding to fast-moving agendas – many of us would hardly see it as ‘play’.

    But, if we look closely, there is not that much difference there from most quest-type computer games – rather, the stakes may be different. I was thinking about this as a possible response to a question ‘why is it that some of us in HE do not see playful/object-based/arts/drama based learning as an attractive option?’ So, for now, one of the possible options is that… these people are also playing.. playing different games. (although ‘play’ and ‘games’ are definitely not synonymous…)

    Erik Bern’s ‘Games People Play’ comes to mind, too…

    Best wishes and look forward to reading your book chapter

    • Andrew Walsh says:

      I agree Maria!

      I really like the splitting of play / games into Ludus (highly structured) and Paidia (free / imaginative) that Callois did – it feels like society tries to squish us into the Ludic play forms. So we can “play” at various work things but need to follow the rules of that game that have been set by other people (they may even be secret rules), and may not always want to be playing it… so not much Paidia in there, though sometimes Ludic play might be?

      Perhaps some of the most “successful” people (those who are promoted to high levels, or run their own businesses), are those who treat work as a game and try to be playful with it – so are prepared to change the rules?

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