Becoming a Playful Academic: A personal story (Maarten Koeners)

Throughout my life, I have been exposed to an increasingly stressful and demanding expectation to perform. This expectation has not only been dictated by society in which we live, but also by deeply ingrained beliefs from my own upbringing, educational experiences, and my efforts to integrate and connect with the world around me. Wherever I lived, learned, or worked, the winner‑takes‑all mentality, characterised by hypercompetitive and performance-based accountability, has always been present. Over the years this has often led to a pattern of self-doubt, stress, and mental ill-health.

The net result was a steady decline of my mental resilience and creativity – ironically key assets for academics. However, in recent years something has changed. I discovered that I was the keeper of my own medicine and could counteract this fear of failing, avoidance of risk and goal‑oriented behaviour. I discovered play. Let us pause here for a minute and think about it. What does play mean for us from childhood up to now? What visions, smells, feelings, and memories do we recall when we let the word play linger in our consciousness?

For me, excitement comes to mind, friendships, board games, endless football in the street, smells of grass and mountain air. My body responds instantly with a smile, a sparkle, itching muscles and a whirlpool belly. However, as soon as these reactions appear they start to dwindle. My brain is firmly bringing me back to its ‘happy place’ of deliberating and planning – not allowing the distraction of frivolous concepts like play. It is trying to sell me an old message, concisely expressed by Descartes: “I think therefore I am”, with the mind as supreme ruler of giving direction and meaning to life, strongly defending its dominion.

Let me ask you a question that often haunts me when I am held prisoner by my own cerebral ruminations:

How often would you use the off-switch on your thinking brain if there was one?

For me, the ability to break through the incessant mental noise has always been play. Not necessarily as an off‑switch, more like a shift in a point-of-view on my own existence. It has brought me to a stillness and a flow that is connected with my own physiology and inseparable from who I am. Throughout my life some form of play has always been connected to significant experiences, insights, creativity and connectivity. From falling in love on a squash court to accepting academic rejections, from performing theatre gimmicks for an audience to bribing my brothers to join me in a self-made board game. Play has always inspired and propelled me. Reflecting on my personal play history, as suggested in Stuart Brown’s enlightening book Play (Brown and Vaughan, 2009) and continued experimentation with my own triggers for play, has enabled me to reconnect with the person who I am.

I invite you to take your own play history. Reconnecting with the joy you experienced at some point in your life and the sense of ‘flow’ that went with it, will enable you to create it again in the now.

Flow as described by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi is an optimal psychological state where psychic energy is effortlessly focussed on clear and achievable goals that provide relevant and immediate feedback to the individual (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). When play promotes a state of flow, it will increase intrinsic drive because of a sense of effortlessness between joy, learning and acquiring skills.

I believe that play is an integral part of the human experience, and of learning specifically. The human drive to learn appears to be organically nurtured and propelled through joy, engagement and play, where learning co-creates our existence.

Let us think about some things we have learned playfully and joyously.

For me, basic experiences come to mind like riding a bicycle, but also social experiences like learning to make a joke or how to love someone unconditionally.

Reconnecting and integrating play within my daily life and work is having significant reverberations. As a lecturer I am passionate to integrate play and playfulness with my teachings and academic practice. This includes a variety of initiatives, practices and collaborations – I will, in alliance with my ‘play mates’, document these within this blog series. We will address sensory stimulation, humour, togetherness, novelty, puzzles, games and the use of narratives. In addition I have become captivated with the physiology of play, which has resulted in a recent publication in the International Journal of Play (Koeners and Francis, 2020). This drives me to continue to educate myself on how play and playfulness can have a positive effect on learning while simultaneously counteracting a number of barriers to creativity and wellbeing. I aim to extend the idea of play and how it can joyously co-create knowledge and skills – making the University a compassionate place where learning to solve problems and overcome obstacles is a reward in its own right.

References

Brown, S. L., & Vaughan, C. C. (2009). Play : how it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul New York: Avery.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow : the psychology of optimal experience Pymble, NSW ; New York: HarperCollins e-books.

Koeners, M. P., & Francis, J. (2020). The physiology of play: potential relevance for higher education. International Journal of Play, pp. 1-17. doi:10.1080/21594937.2020.1720128 Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/21594937.2020.1720128

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