The value of play in business and management education


Throughout my career in higher education I have been fascinated by the inventive, creative, playful ways in which teachers seek to engage students. My explorations have led to a book with Professor Stephen Brookfield – Engaging Imagination: helping students become creative and reflective thinkers and one with Dr Chrissi Nerantzi – The Power of Play: creativity in tertiary learning. In the latter we explored play and playful learning across the disciplines and internationally. Play-based approaches seek to stimulate and shake up student curiosity, address diverse needs and foster the will to learn. They also generate divergent views as to their value, from ardent advocacy to suspicious resistance. These perceptions and practices are ones that I am now researching further.

My enquiry focuses on the use and value of play in higher education generally and the domain of management and business education in particular. This work is supported by the Imagination Lab Foundation; a charitable organisation dedicated to exploring the intersections between art, science, management, education, imagination and play. I am intrigued that some forms of play seem to be readily accepted, while others seem to be more on the periphery of our educational practices. I want to understand why this is.


A form of play which is already well established, accepted and non-contentious in management education is that of gamification. In real and virtual forms, games, simulations and competitions are used in all kinds of settings. A familiar example may be the use of the Dragon’s Den model as a means of gamifying the pitch process for new ideas. Another may be the egg dropping challenge, to teach problem solving. Less well known may be the simulation created by Dr Roz Sunley, to teach responsible management on the virtual island of Laputare. A keen advocate of gamified and playful learning is Professor Caroline Elliott, Deputy Dean of Aston Business School. In her first year at Aston she was struck by how many of her colleagues were using games and experiments in their teaching, as well as creating technologically advanced games and simulations. As a long term user of games herself she decided to bring colleagues together to share practice and created A-Game – Aston Games in Education.

The many faces of ‘play’

Outside the sphere of gamification LEGO(r) Serious Play(r) is increasingly being used to explore all manner of complex issues. Through a systematic and metaphorical set of activities bricks participants build, share and reflect on issues of importance through the medium of LEGO(r). As an accredited facilitator of the method I have worked outside higher education, helping clients create strategy;  in business and management contexts within HE I have used it to explore team functioning, prototyping, student-industry partnerships, personal development planning, the teaching of concepts, generation of strategy, conflict management and many other topics.

These, then, are forms of play with which many educators feel comfortable. They may also not bear the moniker or play, but be referred to by other means. There are other forms of play which are less common and which step into less structured, freer and more experimental territory. One example is the creation of a partnership in the shape of an artist’s residency at Cass Business School to encourage innovation (Holtham and Bech, 2019). Through this the partners sought to ‘demonstrate that play and art can be central to enhance understanding and expression in management of organisations’ (in James and Nerantzi, 2019 p173). A few years earlier I came across an equally unusual form of play for management when I was invited by Developing Leaders magazine to write a piece on why play has a place in leadership education. The partnership I wrote about there involved individuals developing interpersonal and leadership skills in cooperation with a sheepdog.

Proponents of play argue that they use it for many purposes, a key one being that it is effective in terms of student learning. What I am finding through my work so far, however, is that playful learning practices are not universally visible, adopted or appreciated. Experience and enquiry thus far suggest that numerous factors may influence whether or not we adopt playful approaches to teaching. Setting aside the obvious one of time and expediency, there are others; our understanding of the term play, our views about our roles as educators, expectations and conventions of our field as well as beliefs as to the nature, identity and purpose of the university. At the heart of these factors and our practices are our conceptions of value and our own value systems. Underpinning my enquiry is the work of the eminent play theorist Brian Sutton Smith, who articulated Seven Rhetorics of Play; I also draw on other key play researchers. My challenge is to be able to connect with educators in the fields of management and business in higher education to ensure that their views and practices are represented and that our shared knowledge of these can enrich our teaching and research.

Through this blog I would like to invite anyone with an interest in the use and value of play in higher education to respond to this survey. This includes links to broader information about me and the project in general, should you wish to read this first.

A second phase of the work will be to conduct interviews, workshops and play-based research activities in order to inform the final project outcomes which will be made freely available to all.

By Alison James PhD, Professor Emerita, University of Winchester, National Teaching Fellow, and Principal Fellow HEA.