First published in Dutch on the 15th of September 2010

“Without joy life does not deserve the name life.”

Erasmus (1469-1536)


It’s so funny; my daughter used to take swimming lessons, but that didn’t go very well. During the summer she was able to play in the pool with her nephews at our holiday address and she was doing wonderfully. She made so much progress and now she swims like a fish. I’ve asked her swim teacher whether she can skip a few levels now.”

A colleague told me this story and most parents probably have similar experiences. They are fun and touching but not exceptional. We all know that children sometimes have a better opportunity of learning within an environment of chaotic play, rather than with the aid of a carefully structured and didactically justified teaching method. I briefly touched upon the idea that play helps us develop in another essay (A plea for doubt and confusion, 10.06.10). It was not a contentious remark; every educationalist, developmental psychologist and primary school teacher will endorse this.

No more playing when we are older?

Even so, I feel compelled to discuss this subject because the interplay between learning and playing gets lost rapidly as we move further up in education (secondary and higher education). My 14-year old daughter looks at me as though I have just suffered from a brain hemorrhage when I suggest that learning is like playing. Many students and teachers I see also perceive of play as the opposite of learning; it is time now for the real work!

Is learning by playing something that is only a valid method when it is children concerned and becomes obsolete when we get older and everything gets “serious”? More concretely, can one master a high (academic) level of knowledge and skills through a method of learning by playing? There is much skepticism. A higher level of thinking is usually associated with an austere work ethic. I view things differently. I am bold enough to argue that a higher level can only be achieved through play.


I often employ metaphors and analogies in which play is central. They are fun and they are applicable to a variety of situations and phenomena. Students find them both enlightening and energizing.

“Studying is like playing a game of Cluedo. You are Sherlock Holmes or a CSI agent. You are continually in search of clues in books, articles, and classes to help you solve the mystery. The mystery is not the identity of the killer or the circumstances of the murder, but rather the question of what the study material is about, what is important about it and what you can do with the knowledge it offers.”

No proof

The enthusiasm my metaphors invoke in my audience does not prove that my comparison is correct and that higher education should employ learning by playing. A metaphor or analogy is meant to describe a concept, a phenomenon or a process; however, a correct line of reasoning contained in the metaphor is not enough to prove that the same reasoning also applies to the phenomenon at hand. I can compare the internal structure of an atom to the solar system in which the sun and planets represent the core of the atom and its electrodes. Yet, this does not mean I can conclude from this that our solar system is an atom and that our galaxy is a kind of gigantic living organism.

The analogy between studying and Cluedo is also limited. Studying is much more complicated and does (hopefully) not include dice; moreover, it can have nasty consequences if you “loose”. What, then, is the value of the analogy? Its value is not so much in the game itself, but rather the playful attitude that comes with it. This is the attitude I would like to emphasize.

Not play, but playfulness

Playfulness is often associated with a noncommittal attitude which lacks ambition, concentration and perseverance. Indeed, a high level of competency cannot be achieved without those traits, but I do believe it is a mistake to exclude them from a playful attitude altogether. I believe they can go together well.

Playfulness has various meanings in dictionaries. Some are difficult to equate with effective learning processes (e.g. levity, frivolous, mischievous), but others are more constructive in nature (e.g. spontaneity, easy, lighthearted). The latter meanings are especially interesting. I recognize them as the exact opposites of the obstructive attitudes I find with students in need of my help.

Fixation on results

Students who wrestle with their studies are often depressed instead of lighthearted. They are strongly fixated on the end result and they no longer see what is actually necessary to get there. Any spontaneity disappears in an attempt to squeeze out a feat. It is fine when they are successful, but as soon as a student does not deliver what they intended to the vulnerability of this fixation on results becomes visible.

Results are never a guarantee

In higher education examinations can be 6, 8 or 12 weeks away. Theses can even take up to 6 or 10 months! In the meantime students have no guarantees whatsoever that they are on the right track. It is a characteristic of higher education that assignments are big, complex and indeterminate. Negative feedback or a low grade mid-term can cause tension, anxiety and sometimes downright panic in these circumstances. Students who are fixated on results start to focus even more on the finish line, but that does not help because the end results are always uncertain. A student can never be 100% certain that something is going to work. They simply do not know.

The process offers guidance

If results (products) cannot offer support, then there is only the process left to guide a student. That is the more sensible course anyhow. From the perspective of a psychology of learning, reaching for the finish line is not particularly interesting or important. Rather, processes deserve our attention to a much larger extent. Whenever the process of learning runs satisfactorily, the product will automatically be achieved.

It is quite normal to receive negative feedback (alongside the positive feedback) while going through a process relatively smoothly. The end product will come out better for it. This does not only hold true for courses but also for scientific research as well as every other creative process at a high level.


Students can focus on their activities easier whenever they enjoy both the good and bad moments during the process. They must welcome both ambiguity and clarity in the discussions in class. Their curiosity must get sparked by an unintelligible paragraph in a book and they should laugh when they interpret an assignment wrongly, only to roll up their sleeves and take the challenge. This, to me, is the value of a playful attitude.

From time to time I like to play a game of darts and I have become quite skilled at it. Not because I always win, but rather because I can get lost in the game completely and I enjoy the tension whenever it gets to be a close call. I grant my opponent no advantage and I challenge him to give his absolute best. I cheer loudly whenever I win but I also delight in my loss and sincerely congratulate my opponent. It is enjoying the game, no matter the outcome, that has made me the player I am today.

But how about when the stakes are higher?

“Before I really enjoyed writing, but now I am experiencing so much trouble to write essays and papers. The stakes are higher now. I have to show what I am worth.”

This citation demonstrates how a playful attitude can be a difficult concept during “serious” activities. Writing was a pleasant affair when there were no consequences attached to it, but now it all comes down to it. There is something at stake because of which the assignment is experienced as mandatory and unsafe. I would probably experience my darts adventure differently as well if I had to gamble a hundred euro’s every game.

No difference

The above is true but it does not change my reasoning. An end result does not get more secure whenever the assignment is deemed more important and thus it can never offer any support. Also, the question is what exactly is important? Henk Barendregt, Buddhist and mathematician at Radboud University, recently made this very clear to me when he described his Buddhist vision in an interview. He makes a distinction between desire and ambition on the one hand and attachments on the other hand. The former are valuable traits which add colour to our lives. The latter, however, is dangerous and should be avoided as much as possible.


Whenever you are attached to something, you are afraid to lose it. You believe you need it to feel good about yourself or to get appreciation from others. Often you do not actually need those attachments and what is more, they are difficult to hold on to in a continually changing world. There are no guarantees that you will even be able to hold on to your attachments, which is why the anxiety will come back time and again.

Desires and ambition describe a wish and not an actual result. They are your motivation. What actually becomes manifested has no part in that.

It can be a very unpleasant feeling to have to loose when working on something that matters, but it is never actually “disastrous”. One should play every game (study or work) passionately without feeling the obligation to win. Besides, one’s game gets qualitatively better when the need to win is left out of the equation. Any athlete will tell you this.

The academic foundation

During the opening ceremony of the academic year at Radboud University, Désanne Bredero voiced her strong opposition to the glorification of efficiency, innovation and profit. If those motivations remain unrestrained, they will clash with creative and academic thinking. Bredero describes a lack of joy in scientists and other academics as a symptom of this clash. Academic scholars suffer due to the merciless demands of efficiency and benefits to society; they suffer due to this climate in which colleagues are competition rather than comrades-in-arms in search of truth.

Bredero’s brave speech lays bare the fundamental problems that come with an unbounded fixation on result. This paradigm not only affects the performances of students but also those of researchers and teachers. It undermines the basic principles of higher education. In short, we must make sure we keep playing and enjoying the game at all times, no matter winning, loosing, efficiency or profitability.