Playful Praxis – A Student’s Perspective (Tom Nancarrow)

Entering my fifth year of higher education, I am in the unfortunate position to have more years as an undergraduate to reflect on than most, yet still have more to look forward to.

Yes, I am a medical student.

Play and medicine almost seem at odds. How would you picture a typical medical student? Pouring over books late into the evening? Spending long days helping the medical team? I see someone on the ward getting in the way and trying not to be confused for a patient themselves, but that’s just from personal experience.

It is true to an extent, playfulness does not traditionally heavily feature in a medical curriculum, just like its relative absence across the majority of higher education courses.

If you squint into the past and think about those sessions where you lost your sense of time or those led by a particularly innovative or inspiring facilitator, the chances are that play will have been involved somewhere.

My own experiences include participating in simulation sessions to learn about the management of the acutely ill patient, role-play for learning communication skills and using chicken thighs as suturing practice. Or perhaps our small group sessions, where students were given a case vignette and were tasked to prepare a short presentation on the relevant learning to the other groups. The most successful sessions used innovative and gamified approaches such as ‘Kahoot’ quizzes and clinical examination role play. The least effective method was consistently the presentation of ‘dry’ PowerPoint slides.

What makes this interesting is that this was the most common teaching modality students chose to use and it ultimately led to negative student feedback about the usefulness of these sessions. There were no structural constrictions or linked assessments to these sessions and the aim was to practice the delivery of useful information to your peers whilst also expanding your own medical knowledge. Yet, students chose to produce, by their own words, ‘boring’ PowerPoints each session. This is not particularly surprising, but what is interesting is to consider why this happens. Is it the lack of perceived learning from these sessions or is it that learning through PowerPoint is so ingrained on a student and collaboration between peers so unusual that we are not able to express our true creativity when given the opportunity?

If so, this begs the question of how can more playfulness be reintroduced?

What is my place in this?

A career as a full-time clinician is a scary prospect. Burnout in the NHS is all too common, and it is not infrequent to meet doctors on placement who advice you against joining their profession. The NHS is changing and less clinicians are going straight into specialty and consultant training. Many train part-time, some decide it is not the career for them (see This is going to hurt by Adam Kay) and others look at ways to incorporate their wider interests into their careers. This is where academia fits in for me – I am concerned that I may not want a full-time clinical career.

The question of the role of playfulness in education is, therefore, important to me and it is part of the reason I recently acquired the role of a Playful University intern. Through this position I am able to immerse myself in the developments of playfulness in higher education and gain first-hand experience through the Playful University Club education incubator project here at the University of Exeter, as well as improving my skillset required for future involvement in education.

The Playful University Club aims to promote a culture that can foster play within the University by creating capacity for awareness, uptake, and exposure of play and playful learning. Ultimately, we aim to make the University of Exeter a place where learning is created and nurtured through joy, engagement and play, where learning to solve problems and overcome obstacles is a reward in its own right. The club hosts several activities each month including games nights and guest speakers. It is open to all University staff and Students and is a wonderful opportunity to support a compassionate community using play. If this is a YES for you, please email Maarten Koeners: m.p.koeners@exeter.ac.uk.

My future path into education will remain a windy one with many turns to be taken. My goals are to build my portfolio through opportunities I enjoy and this role as a playful university intern is certainly one of them. Future options would include applying to the academic foundation programme (‘time out’ of clinical work during the first two years after medical school to pursue an academic interest) and then applying for a specialty that lends itself nicely to a varied career, such as general practice, but those bridges do not need to be crossed yet.

Even though I am not yet able to fully appreciate the potential roles of play in education, its importance is clear. We are living in very uncertain times with huge adaptions being made at rapid speed in the education sector to ensure content can be delivered safely and effectively. Incorporating more play into teaching is a must and there is still ample opportunity to realise its benefits and apply this to curricula, both widely at a university level and personally, through any teaching each of us are involved with.

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