Saturday 8 July 2023

Fairytale creatures at Playful Learning 2023


An object made of paper, card, pipecleaners and more. Looks like an upside down cup with wiring hair and fierce eyebrows

I ran a workshop at the Playful Learning Conference in Leicester last week where we made new (or forgotten) fairy tale creatures representing aspects of play or playfulness. Participants wrote short bios and what they'd need to thrive and multiply into the world. The same things required to make these creatures thrive could equally be seen as ways to enable play / playfulness to thrive too! When I have time / energy I'll list some of the creatures (the photo above is Jing, from Alex's twitter - didn't want to embed just in case Twitter completely explodes shortly).

The ways participants thought they could allow their creatures to thrive are (in brief):

  • Collaboration
  • Appreciation of fun
  • Getting into nature more
  • Accepting creatures (people) as they are
  • Making room for play
  • Undermining barriers to play
  • Bringing together creative people
  • Looking towards allies for support
  • "Yes and..." to extend play not shut it down
  • Purpose
  • Permission to pause for a while
  • Sufficient mental and physical space
  • To be able to move freely mentally and physically
  • Support for faciliators
  • A sense of belonging
  • Acknowleding emotions
  • Enabling autonomy
  • An active community
  • A willingness to question and to adapt
  • Acceptance that we need people (the invented creature!) who encourage play and that a visit from them is a gift
  • Universities should build people who encourage play into their wellbeing plans
  • Curious people / natures
  • Embracing fun (laughter, giggles, chuckles and guffaws!)
  • Time - to prioritise creative, playful thinking. But also to recharge.

... do these sound familiar? I think they sound like valid ways to help us all play more, not just the fairy tale creatures they created :)

Wednesday 3 May 2023

Pedagogy postcards exercise at LILAC23

 I did a playful postcard exercise at LILAC this year, asking people to write their top tips for teaching (or enabling) information literacy development in others on a postcard and posting it in a little red postbox! Those who left an address on a sticky label had a randomly selected postcard sent out to them. This is what they said, plus some comments and explanation from me :) 

Pedagogy Postcards for Practitioners, Andrew Walsh, LILAC 23.

Thank you everyone who submitted a tip! This PDF will list the tips (in italics), add a little commentary about the tips, plus give a very brief outline about the approach taken with this postcard exercise. Those of you receiving this PDF after submitting their email addresses via the QR code, I’ll delete them within the next few weeks.

The tips / commentary

The first few focus on something that librarians often struggle with. We might only see students once, probably for a relatively short amount of time, so there is a temptation to try and tell them “all the things”! I worry that this also tends to combine with an element of vocational awe where we see ourselves as the only people who can save students from poor information literacy and overinflate our importance (see Fobazi Ettarh’s work, e.g. VOCATIONAL AWE AND LIBRARIANSHIP: THE LIES WE TELL OURSELVES). Bombarding students with content isn’t good pedagogical practice though, as these tips suggest!

Bite sized resources available at the point of need. I record short-ish videos on different subjects and make them available to students (who study 100% online).

Don’t sacrifice understanding and deep learning in order to cover content – learning one thing well is better than learning lots superficially. (P.S. Read bell hooks!)

Less is more 😊 We don’t need to tell everything we know about IL in each lesson, people will be overwhelmed. Pick your highlights (learning outcomes) and stick to them. (Hugs from Bettina, Norway.)

I love the pedagogy hinted at behind these next few, but again many librarians struggle with this! It’s often tempting to think that the way we think an information literacy related task should be approached (e.g. searching for information for an assignment) is the best way of doing it. We’re the experts, so everyone should copy our examples. In practice, students are concerned with different things, have varying demands on their time and attention, and need to build strategies that work for them. They may care about different learning outcomes to those that we had in mind at the start, and these may even emerge, or change, during a session. These tips all try to shift the power dynamic towards the student, helping to give them ownership and an element of control, so we meet the students’ needs, not our own pre-determined outcomes. (This is part of the reason I personally take a playful learning approach!)

Give students ownership of their own learning – how can you involve them in co-creating material or learning activities?

Engage your students as collaborators / give them the power to steer their own learning directions & needs by checking their aims before you start teaching (LC Chung)

Tell students at the beginning of sessions that the goal is for them to learn rather than you to teach, so they should be encouraged to ask questions and lead / direct the conversation as they wish 😊

Ask student how they manage and organise information. What is their research information process. (Paul Newnham)

These next few are a mixture of slightly different things, but are all about contextualising the content. Information literacy varies by context and is often difficult for people to transfer from one setting to another – this contextualisation helps embed learning more effectively. It’s not a “library” session, it’s one relevant to their study, work, life, whatever… but a note of caution, be careful using pop-culture references unless you are genuinely up to date. Please don’t think you’re cool dropping references to TV shows that aired before your students were born (or from shows that didn’t air in countries that your students are from). :D 

Start with where your students are at… if they use Google Scholar – show them Google Scholar! If they use TikTok, demo the issues with that (Relete)

Use concrete, pop-culture examples and references = (1) Instant likeability factor (2) more engaging & though provoking (Anne-Lise Harding, House of Commons Library)

Making teaching relatable to your audience. They’ll be able to understand a real life example if its something they do / see every day.

Take the student’s discipline into account. Tie IL skills to a current assignment / theses / pm the students are working on to make it more relevant to them.

I like to use analogies and metaphors to explain things during IL sessions. Examples that relate to everyday activities / experiences.

Connect to what the student is working on and what problems they encounter.

Interactive suggestions cropped up several times in the tips below, but also in many of the other tips. I’ve written and spoken widely on Active Learning and playful learning that match these ideas, but lots of other teaching approaches also match it! These approaches can make it easier to build on the previous knowledge of students and avoid the hideous “banking model” of education (see Paulo Freire, particularly “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”). As a bonus, it can make it much more fun for you and your learners… and if you’re having fun you’re likely to do a much better job!  

Make your IL sessions interactive. Games, both online and physical make the sessions fun for you and the students and enhance engagement and motivation.

Ask learners to search for info online. E.g. “find an industry report on a particular company”. Next use this to springboard discussion on issues of searching for info online. I then follow this up with previous learners comments on this to encourage peer learning and engage the current group.

Connect your teaching to your audience’s needs and their context. Have fun, make it interactive and remember: often, less is more. Quality over quantity 😊

Matching language to meet your audience, which is where I try to avoid getting into arguments over what information literacy should be called! But that said, information literacy is a great term (IMHO) for us to use when talking about these things with other librarians. That doesn’t mean it’s the best term to use with your learners (or in Higher Education, your lecturers, higher management, etc.) – you can fit the concepts within whatever language makes sense to them. Use library jargon (like information literacy) with other librarians as it helps us be clear what we mean, but use the language of your audience to explain stuff to them.

Don’t call it information literacy or if you do, explain what that is in terms your audience will understand. i.e. what it means in their terms / vocabulary. “Info lit” is too librarian focussed.

Check your use of language and jargon - don’t assume that others will understand the terms and acronyms that you use every day.

Think about language and terminology! Sometimes, academics and students are a bit bewildered by what is meant by “information literacy” but if we try to speak their language (talking about research, articles, searching and so on it becomes easier to communicate) (Hope)

I love how these next two mention preparation from different angles! It’s also something that lots of librarians struggle with – teaching preparation for many people focusses on creating “perfect searches” that as Maria says, are fake… and to be honest, then get confusing to learners when they try to replicate them. Preparation should be around the elements of teaching you intend to use, the activities, the structures, etc that you can then confidently apply. Not the nitty gritty of those pre-prepared examples!

Perfectly practiced demos from a librarian are kinda fake. Make it messy! Hand the reins over to a student or use one of their questions o they know it isn’t prepped. (Maria O’Hara, @Meaohara, Kings College London)


These next few are slightly different, but grouped because they are about a mixture of confidence and self-development. Despite many of us having imposter syndrome sitting on our shoulders, telling us we don’t know what we are doing – you do. “You are enough.” There are things we can do to build that confidence, to develop ourselves (like observing others, taking risks, etc) and we should always be learning and developing. That doesn’t mean you are doing badly now! Embrace the fear and do it anyway 😉

Take at least one risk in every session. (Without taking risks your teaching won’t move forward! Don’t be scared) (Nigel Morgan)

Remember… You are an expert. You are enough. Mistakes make you relatable 😊

Talk less and don’t fear the silence!

Have confidence in yourself! Librarians, often introverts, can be a bit daunted by being in front of people, but its important for us to believe in our own expertise. We have a voice and its worth listening to! Good luck, you’re doing great.

Ask more experienced colleagues if you can observe their teaching, even if they are not in the same discipline.

Critical thinking can often be absent in library sessions, but it shouldn’t be! We don’t have absolute answers, but we can help our learners think critically about things and come to their own conclusions. For example, there are lots of frameworks to help people evaluate information sources – if they are used as checklists, they are all bad, if they are used as examples of the type of questions we should be answering and reflecting upon, they can be good. Resist the checklist and embrace the critical questioning!

Instruction should be presented in a value neutral way. There are no “good” and “bad” research tactics. Only more effective and less effective. This can help prevent / reduce embarrassment and open up a genuine dialogue. (Anna Nunn, University of Suffolk)

I always tell students (and others) to check the source. Who is the creator? What is their perspective? What is the purpose of the content the are delivering? (Susan Adkins)

Explore with students the why of things, not just the how.

This one is partly about an approach to teaching, but also about visual literacies. You can tap into different ways of viewing the world and understanding or representing information by using visual approaches – comics / cartoons are one, but there are plenty of others (collage anyone?) out there. Don’t feel hidebound by only using text!

Why not use comics and cartoons for information literacy – works for me!

Bonus tip, but an important one… we don’t teach in a vacuum! This could equally be “feed the IT person biscuits”, especially if you teach in building where you might need support! Anyone that does (or might) support you will appreciate your support in return!

Get to know your admin team and take them cake 😊 (Eva Garcia Grau)


A quick overview for this postcard approach!

I couldn’t be sure if this would work for the delegates in advance, but I got slightly more cards filled in than I was expecting and there are some lovely tips, so I think it did! For an all conference activity like this, 10% of attendees engaging is a good target to aim for and we managed more than that 😊 Using these approaches in a teaching session gets much better engagement, normally everyone would participate.

The postcard activity aimed to draw from the delegates skills and knowledge of teaching information skills, pull them together, group and comment on them (if appropriate), then share them back to the community that contributed.

It draws from a few ideas that I use in my own teaching:

·         Making items tactile so they are attractive to engage with. There is something about print items, especially handmade (I sometimes use items I Letterpress print myself), that naturally invite people to interact with them. A physical postcard tends to be more engaging than asking an equivalent question by circulating a short Google form around everyone (Alke’s work on Tactile Academia is great -

·        Related to tactility is physical representations that give cues towards what we expect – the postcards and the red phone box are directly familiar to UK based people of a certain age, but may also have familiar echoes with younger attendees that might not have directly experienced writing or receiving print postcards. Many people see a postcard and postbox and know what expectations exist around them, the objects themselves guide participants naturally towards doing the activity.

·         Restrictions / constraints can help enable creativity (and engagement with a task like this). The constraint of a small area on the postcard can help people complete the task in a way that a completely open invitation (submit an email or Word document?) does not. An open task can often be harder (and more intimidating) to complete than a constrained or restricted one. (Though I do offer alternatives that are more open, in this case an online form for people that might want to write longer form content, or who might struggle with handwriting a card.)

·         Gifting can invite people to take part in activities – this activity tries to take advantage of that both by the prospect of a small future gift for participants (a postcard delivered to them) AND their own tip turning into a gift for someone else.

 See for occasional posts from me about library teaching, play, playfulness, workshops and other random bits and pieces. I’m bookable for workshops (online or in person) and sometimes run open workshops too (I’ve just run a few introductory Lego ones).

Andrew Walsh ( / @PlayBrarian)



Thursday 16 February 2023

Repairing Play: A Black Phenomenology and some reflections


Front cover of the book entitled Repairing Play
Just finished reading "Repairing Play" by Aaron Trammell and I have thoughts! I agree with much that Aaron writes, but disagree with a bit too, which is fair enough... really enjoyed reading it!

More importantly to me, I wonder if the stuff I disagree with comes down to our definitions of play, partly because of my different experiences of play as an autistic person, which is different again to some "mainstream" play theorists?

I have to note as well that the author takes a very US centric approach to this book, which I've tried to forgive, but is undoubtedly niggling me anyway (though he does briefly acknowledge this, so bonus points for this).

So... onto my proper thoughts...

A core part of the book argues that play can be non-consensual, a conflict with traditional play theorists, who say it is always consensual / voluntary. So he says that bullying, torture, police brutality should all count as play... whereas most play theorists would say that they are not. He argues that play is overwhelmingly seen as positive, but it should equally be seen as potentially negative. 

I wonder is this is where I bring my own experiences in a way that is different again? Maybe this is an autistic thing and neurotypical people have a 3rd way that Aaron sees as the norm in play theory?

He counts play as an act that is possible to do to someone else, so the tortured and torturer are playing, the bullied and the bully. I think that he's saying that normally we wouldn't class things like torture as play, but that we should do. I've always seen it slightly differently - the torturer, the bully, the toxic manager, the brutal police officer, can absolutely be playing. Playing as an individual, or as part of a group (that deliberately excludes others), but the person involuntarily suffering as part of it is definitely not playing - to be playing they'd have to be voluntarily taking part, so for example, BDSM would count, but not being involuntarily tortured!

Is this because I'm comfortable that in any activity I recognise that some people may well be playing, some just going through the motions? That the mental state is as important as what is happening at face value? (Or perhaps it's because Aaron comes from game studies, so the game, the structure is the key thing, so can be done to others? I don't know...)

Equally I might be playing in my own head, approaching an activity in a way that makes it play, with others being completely unaware of others - play is much more likely to be an individual activity for me, though the idea that play is inherently social pops up all the time in the play literature.

So this different way of thinking about play is where I think we differ - I wonder if just as his way of thinking about play is heavily influenced by a mixture of game studies and US Black history (and current experiences), so is mine influenced by Autistic play, even though I haven't really thought about it in this way before!

I know this doesn't get onto his idea of repairing play and is probably a bit of a side issue, but it made me wonder about something quite different to the ideas he covers in the book - whether the autistic experience of play is something else again, which I found quite interesting personally! So where I've read between the lines of traditional play theories and assumed one thing (based on my own experiences of play), other people are taking quite a different set of assumptions from it - which Aaron has flagged up by taking a third :)

I really need to find time to dig into neurodivergent ideas of play in adults at some point! Rather than people writing about children's play, which always feels to me like "how do we use play to fix these children" :-S

Friday 27 January 2023

Online Lego Workshop

Before Christmas I was talking to someone at a Playful Learning event and they were saying how it'd be lovely to have something available to just get a flavour of Lego Serious Play (LSP), some practical examples, a chance to have a go, pointers as to where you might get the Lego from, etc - rather than a full blown LSP course. 

So I've finally got around to setting up a little half day online workshop - maximum 10 people, I'll send a pack of Lego out to people in advance, and we'll run through all those sort of things...

So if you're Lego curious and want to start experimenting with using plastic blocks (but are worried about doing it for the first time). You want to learn the basics in a supportive setting? Sign up to this intro course! We'll post your Lego out in discreet packaging :)

Either follow the link, or (fingers crossed), the form should appear below:

Monday 21 November 2022

Playful Leadership is... at the PLA meeting November 2022

Playful Leadership is the witches brew in the cauldron of knowledge

We had one of our biannual Playful Learning Association meetings last week in Huddersfield and I did a "Playful Leadership is..." exercise, so sharing the results here for convenience!

One group stamped a "headline" thing about Playful Leadership on one side of the card, then a separate group used that as a prompt for more detail on the other side. (Limited time, space, materials for the "headline" phrase or word, more time and space to write on the back!)

All the cards can be seen in a Google Photos album, but I've also tried to transcribe the text below

Playful Leadership is:




It may subvert roles

And structures

And expectations

And processes

And boundaries

And relations

And pedagogy

And play


So run, hide, tell

Projecting play into work

Focusses on the playful aspect of work

Has a strong intent

Projecting = role modelling


Power balances, mutual respect between leader and team – creates space for creativity.

Everyone takes ownership for the direction.

Choose your own adventure (but how does this work to … illegible)

A state of mind

A Playful Attitude.

Agency – you choose to. You have to want to be playful.

Persuasion – changing the state of mind of others.


Messy talk creates opportunity for emerging ideas. (Article was referenced in explanation for messy talk)

Creating space

A chance to breathe, pause, & reflect. Mindfully, socially, and bodily.

Set of symbols – multiple ?, !, &, #

Questioning, inclusive, and staying sharp.

The witches brew in the cauldron of knowledge

“Add some spice” to existing practice.

Stirring up habits and stagnant practice.

The unexpected

Who is it unexpected for? Facilitator needs to be comfortable. Breaks auto pilot of bad teaching.

Unexpected changes in boundaries / changes who is “in charge”?

Striking a pose.

Being unashamed of your authentic self

(ridicule is nothing to be scared of)

Boring (also included stamps of ice creams and flying hearts)

About making the boring not boring.

Because ice cream makes everything not boring.

The BORING button.


Everyone is invited and involved in the play.

The last round I added an extra limiter for, which they struggled with more, limiting the cards to a particular aspect of playful leadership, either Staff Development, Recruitment, or Performance Management:

Playful Leadership (in recruitment) is.. NEW




Creative approaches



Playful Leadership (in recruitment) is.. RO(U)LE BREAKING

The power of playfulness is to disrupt, transform, add ambiguity to rules/roles – thus breaking standards.

Emphasising the boundary breaking in recruitment processes exploring rules/roles as dynamic / flexible.

Playful Leadership (in recruitment) is.. CREATIVE ASSESSMENT

Introducing exciting / fun / collaborative / interactive tasks to assess key competencies for role.

Setting expectations that unexpected / imaginative / unique responses are valued.

Encouraging different behaviours to be demonstrated.

[Is it exclusionary to those less playful?]

Playful Leadership (in Performance Management) is.. CORE CONDITIONS (making sense of things, Rogers)

Go back in time and fix the things you didn’t get right the first time. (Note – this was verbally explained that they were playing with the idea of Steve Rogers in the Avengers films.)

Playful Leadership (in Performance Management) is.. STORY

Their career path is their own story.

Every story has a beginning and an end.

Where the person is now, where they want to be / should be.

Performance management is how to get there – see other card! (Note – this refers to “collective imagination card)

Playful Leadership (in Performance Management) is.. COLLECTIVE IMAGINATION

Joint negotiating on the persons destination and steps to get there – see also: STORY

Playful Leadership (in Staff Development) is… Symbols only for this one, mustache, kitten/dog faces, ice cream

Shrug Stamp.


Playful Leadership (in Staff Development) is… Symbols only for this one, 2 mustaches with a question mark in the middle.

Interactively differently. Even during Movember.

Wednesday 12 October 2022

Playful Leadership Manifesto / Pamphlet


Three playful leadership pamphlets, illustrative of letterpress printed covers
I ran a little Kickstarter recently to sum up my thoughts on Playful Leadership in a way that was playful for me to create - so partly inspired by (17th Century?) manifestos that were short and easy to print on Letterpress printers and distribute.

So the printed version has a letterpress printed cover (inside is from a modern printer though), plus a few A5 prints of play quotes on the letterpress too as a little extra playing about from me.

If anyone is interested in reading the content though, it's available as a PDF now for anyone from my Dropbox. Take a look, see what you think, let me know if you find it a useful way of framing Playful Leadership :)

Saturday 30 July 2022

What play at work looks like?


A Generic university building on the University of Teesside campus
(Teesside University Library by Stephen McKay) 

I was invited to Teesside Uni the other day to run a workshop on various aspects to do with play, to a mix of librarians and a few other people from other student support services.

The brief was a tad longer than I like, they wanted me to cover lots of slightly different things related to play at work / in teaching / etc., so slightly less focussed and playful than I'd like to run a workshop, but there was an important point raised by someone there which might have still come up in a more focussed workshop, I'm not sure...

The boss of their service wants more play in everyone's work and explicitly says so, throughout the workshop I tried to push the idea of play and playfulness (rather than games) so it can run through lots of things we do, but still I got the pushback from someone that "of course we wouldn't be able to play at work except in this sort of workshop". 

Because of the quantities of things I was trying to cover, I probably didn't give as many practical examples as I normally do, but even so, I suspect the issue would have come up anyway? I suspect I'm guilty that I know what a playful workplace / teaching session / whatever looks like when I see it, but bad at explaining that to other people - I will tend to assume too much that when I explain what play is, then other people can see it.

The person saying they wouldn't be able to play was thinking of play in terms of a little exercise they did where they played with a balloon elsewhere on campus. Not in terms of approaching work with a playful mindset, so it can (at times) become play. I hadn't clearly enough explained that idea (even though I'd tried!). Someone else in the room (really helpfully!) had described how they sometimes have meetings they play about flicking elastic bands at each other during the meeting - I'm not recommending others do this, but it's a way they found of bringing play into an otherwise un-playful meeting which works for them. 

So flicking elastic bands around for the sake of it = no, of course that isn't work.

Flicking elastic bands around because it improves a meeting = yes, as long as it suits everyone there, it's work.

I think in future I need more of this in any workshop, explaining concepts is fine, giving examples is fine, but I think I probably also need that sort of comparison too. Trying to explain that when I talk about playful work environments there is an extra layer of the employer also being a stakeholder in the game - as long as they are getting something out of it as well as the direct players, then it's probably fine, but that line of "usefulness" is probably constantly moving, much as the potential players capacity and ability to play is constantly changing too. So back to playing around with a balloon - most of the time I wouldn't expect that to be part of work, but it might sometimes be? If everyone is frazzled and needs 5 minutes moving around before coming back more refreshed and productive, it's probably a good playful work thing. (I might take one into my office next week actually, to see if knocking it around every time the motion sensitive lights switch off!) But going out as a group for an hour each day to pass a balloon around, that probably isn't a good use of work time. I need to spend some more time in any workshop trying to get people to think about that moveable boundary of ok / not ok work play, as well as some of the subtleties of what play at work actually looks like.