Exploring Play/playfulness and Learning in the Adult and Higher Education Classroom

Open Access
Tanis, David Jay
Graduate Program:
Adult Education
Doctor of Education
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
May 03, 2012
Committee Members:
  • Edward W Taylor, Dissertation Advisor/Co-Advisor
  • Elizabeth Jean Tisdell, Committee Member
  • James Ewald Johnson, Committee Member
  • Samuel William Monismith, Committee Member
  • play
  • playfulness
  • adult learning
  • higher education classroom
  • ways of knowing
  • classroom environment
  • ludic classroom
Play and playfulness and their role in learning are researched extensively in early childhood education. However, as the child matures into an adult, play and playfulness are given less attention in the teaching and learning process. In adult education, there is very little research about play/playfulness and its significance for learning. Despite this oversight, there are adult educators who routinely incorporate play and playfulness in their classrooms and see it as central in the teaching of adults. This study used a comparative case study approach to explore the role of play and playfulness in learning in an adult and higher education classroom context. Based on specific criteria, four playful classrooms were identified and investigated through classroom observations, interviews with the educators, focus group interviews with students, and paper and pencil surveys administered to all students in these classrooms. Interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim, and the classroom observations were videotaped and reviewed. Inductive analysis and constant comparative technique were utilized to analyze the data. The findings revealed that educators associated the following elements with play and playfulness: fun, spontaneity, relationship and connection, silliness or goofiness, creativity and imagination. Furthermore, play and playfulness were most frequently manifested in the classroom through risk taking, storytelling, and physical activities. Students identified cognitive gains in terms of engagement, retention, and understanding. More significantly, students indicated that play and playfulness created a unique learning environment that felt safe and encouraged risk taking. Additionally, play and playfulness created positive affect such as fun, enjoyment, and laughter in the classroom environment. This study addresses the lack of empirical research on play and playfulness in adult learning. It identifies positive benefits of incorporating play and playfulness in a classroom context and suggests that to fully realize these benefits, educators should adopt a model of learning that embraces the significance of emotions and affect. Play and playfulness facilitate learning in the adult and higher education classroom.