Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Playful Learning Conference 2017

The arrival instructions from the organisers of this years Playful Learning Conference started off as expected - details about accessing the venue by public transport and what time registration began. But things then took a more 'playful' turn:
'This year the toys want in on the action at the conference.  They’re refusing to allow entry unless you bring one of their kind.  As organisers we are not prepared to face the toys’ wrath so we need you to do the following in preparation:

  • Find, beg, borrow or steal a cuddly toy companion to accompany you to the conference
  • Give your toy a creative name
  • Create a twitter profile for your toy'

With my soft toy packed, I set off to Manchester with a certain amount of trepidation! However -  I need not have worried. This was only the second Playful Learning conference, but as an attendee everything felt remarkably well organised and they managed to put together a really wide and exciting range of sessions. 

A particular highlight for me were the sessions exploring Escape Games / Escape Rooms. There are thousands of Escape Rooms worldwide; and whilst they will all have their own unique theming and 'back story' elements, they are all based around the premise of groups solving puzzles to escape an enclosed space. I wasn't aware of these games being used in HE, but actually the concept of an escape game, with students solving puzzles relating to their subject area is a great example of active learning. 

Daryl Peel from the University of Southampton presented at the conference, and has written about creating Escape Games on this blog post

learning how to create an escape room @playlearnconf with @glubsohiunicorn #playlearn17 #theta360 - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

Prototyping our escape game

Liz Cable from Leeds Trinity University facilitated an excellent session at the conference, which started off with delegates trying to complete her escape game in a box called 'The Case of the Rocketman'. The game has been played with over 1000 students at Leeds Trinity, and is used as a team building exercise. It develops critical thinking skills, and encourages students to work together to solve problems. I really enjoyed playing the game, and it not only worked well as an icebreaker activity, but also found it really mentally stimulating. It was the perfect way to start a busy day of sessions. 

One great thing about this escape game is that it is relatively portable - there are four boxes of various sizes to unlock and they would all fit in a small suitcase. This means the game could be played anywhere - you don't have to make players come to a specific escape room. It would have been great to play an escape game that perhaps had some subject specific learning outcomes, but I could certainly see how powerful this concept is. One inherent problem with these types of games is that there is very limited replay potential once you have played the scenario, and as I understand it this is something that commercial escape room operators are finding challenging. 

Simon Warwick and myself presented our 'Crys-Tel Maze' session at the conference - we were pleasantly surprised with the amount of people that wanted to come to our session, and we received some good feedback. Our colleagues Bryony Olney & Dr Bobby Nisha from the Department of Urban Studies & Planning at Sheffield presented about their DDCF project. It was great to find out about how students are using 3D Pens to help them visualise structures - and I discovered that I'm as bad as drawing with a 3D pen as I am with a normal biro! These are the 3D Pens that we used

Another highlight was playtesting a Research Methods Game, which was developed by the Centre for Excellence in Learning & Teaching at Manchester Metropolitan University. The game is designed to teach students about different research methods, and requires you to work in pairs to design research methods for a fictional research project. I didn't really know anything about theoretical perspectives or epistemologies before playing (!), so I found it very useful and it certainly gave me a good understanding of the theories involved.

Luckily for the community, the creators have released the game under a Creative Commons licence, so you can download the game for free and adapt it for your own learning and teaching requirements. 

You can see more from the conference on the following Storify pages: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3

So, how did I feel about bringing a soft toy with me to an academic conference? Well, it was quite odd having to first register my toy as a delegate before being able to enter, but it soon became normal seeing people walking around with their teddy bears. It actually provided a really good reason to approach people and start a conversation with them, as everyone had something in common!

Also, people I spoke to about tweeting from their toy account rather than their personal profile also spoke positively about it. It enabled them to be playful and fully join in with the activities, something that they may have not otherwise have done from their personal, professional Twitter handles.


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