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Playful solutions for lifelong learning

Authors: Kristiina Kumpulainen Published:

This article was originally published in Elm's predecessor media, LLinE. The Playful Learning Centre of Helsinki University aims to develop playful solutions to lifelong and blended learning. The authors introduce the Center and reflect on the definitions of play at the backdrop of lifelong learning.

In his biography, Steve Jobs (2011) uses the word ‘playful’ to characterise the design of Apple computers. In doing so he distances Apple designs from other more traditional, dull and impersonal computers. For him, play and playfulness stand for the possibility for personal expression with material objects and engagement in creative interactions with the world. Jobs’ words merge well with our newly established Playful Learning Centre (PLC) situated at the Department of Teacher Education of the University of Helsinki, Finland. The Center concentrates on researching and co-creating innovative playful learning solutions, practices and material tools for learners at any age to learn as they play and play as they learn.

In this article, we shall provide a brief introduction to the rationale and conceptual grounding to Playful Learning Center. We shall begin our introduction by reflecting on some conceptual definitions of play and playfulness at the backdrop of lifelong and lifewide learning in the 21st century.

What accounts as play and playfulness and why are they important?

“The playful nip denotes the bite, but it does not denote what would be denoted by the bite”  (Bateson, 1955, 180)

Whereas the relationship between play and learning represents a long-standing and foundational research focus of early-years development and education, there has been an extraordinary expansion of interest in the meaning of play and playfulness within the context of lifelong learning. Today, play accounts for many as a form of contemporary learning that does not only belong to childhood but equally well to adult learning and education (Gee, 2007; Salen, 2008). Play and playfulness are increasingly considered as important modes of ‘learning and being’ in the world across the lifespan, and across cultures (Resnick, 2013; Sicart, 2014).

As the quote by Bateson (1955) implicitly implies, play and playfulness are also ubiquitous concepts. When examined within the context of lifelong learning it becomes even more complex to define play and playfulness. For some, play accounts for playing specific games, such as video games, for others, play is a broader overarching concept that describes the nature of human activity in the world and the use of mediating artefacts.

From this latter perspective, life in general can be defined as a form of play and play as life. Thus, every cultural activity can in principle be accomplished in playful ways (van Oers, 2013). Then, knowing the ‘rules of the game’ – such as the game of language (Wittgenstein, 1953) – and knowing how to harness mediating tools, such as new digital technologies in productive ways becomes a prerequisite for active, creative and transformative engagement in different spheres of life and society.

Play can also be attached to specific ways of acting in the world which entails playful experimentation, such as trying out ideas and things, tinkering with materials, testing boundaries, taking risks, and iterating (repetition) (Vygotsky, 1978). Here, play and playfulness account for voluntary, passionate and persistent social activity, characterised by positive emotions, high reference value and creativity. Play is about considering alternatives, re-reading the past and to opening up possible futures. It means using the imagination, in order to enrich and expand one’s experience and understanding of the world (Zittoun & Cerchia, 2013). According to this definition, play can be viewed as a disposition that is constructed into being in human interactions with the world.

Play and playfulness can also be conceptualised as forms of hybrid learning – a notion often attached to blended learning too – in which time-space configurations dynamically interact, including online and offline worlds, disciplines, actors and their roles, and other traditional boundaries of working, interacting and learning. Such contemporary forms of playful learning are concretized among others in the growing phenomena of ‘makerspaces’ and ‘fablabs’ that provide physical and virtual spaces, as well as material and human resources for people to come together to create, innovate, prototype and learn according to their interests as part of new collective organisation (see e.g. Hatch, 2013). These sociomaterial spaces and their practices are often characterised by public and private collaborations and intergenerational collaboration. They recognise and build on multiple sources of competence and in doing so create diverse opportunities for individuals’ lifelong and lifewide learning, and at times, even for the creation of innovations and new businesses.

Although firmly rooted in informal, peer-led and interest-driven interactions that mostly take place outside formal education, there is a growing interest in the learning potential of maker spaces and maker movement in general in formal and non-formal education, resulting potentially in new conceptualisations of educational solutions for lifelong learning.

Also recent developments in serious games industry place hybrid learning opportunities at the center of their attention, emphasising playful interactions between formal and informal modes of working and learning (Gee, 2013). These efforts are highlighted, for example, in the rapid growth of game-like ‘health’ and wellbeing applications, which offer professional-level health information in a playful form and with playful activities. All these new forms of playful engagement and learning with new technologies and media urge us to re-examine existing definitions of blended learning – the theme of this issue.

What is Playful Learning Center?

In our times of dynamic and fast-paced changes in the cultural, economic and technological landscapes, there is an increased consensus about the importance of educating people who are not only problem solvers, but who can also ask new questions, anticipate obstacles even before they arise, and play with different ideas, possibilities and material tools. These all require the ability to use imagination, and to think and act creatively in collaboration with others (Bateson & Martin, 2014; Resnick, 2013). It is these 21st century learning requirements that are at the core of the research and development endeavors of the Playful Learning Center.

Finland is known throughout the world for its high level of education expertise and as the home of many innovative gaming companies such as Rovio, the creator of Angry Birds. Playful Learning Center combines these two spearhead areas of know-how, creating a new, competitive type of top-notch expertise for Finland. The Center is about research-based and user-oriented development and innovation, which aims to shape Finland into the leading country in playful learning solutions. In doing so, the Centre’s ecosystem brings together Finnish players, such as, kindergartens, schools, museums, libraries, science centers, vocational education institutions, universities, research institutions, growth and start-up companies and international research and product development organisations.

Playful Learning Center hosts a ‘living lab’ or – as we like to call it – a ‘playground’ for an interdisciplinary co-creative approach to making and testing of a range of playful learning solutions for the promotion of lifelong and lifewide learning in educational institutions and beyond. The conceptual basis of the Center draws on sociocultural and sociohistorical notions of play and playfulness in human learning and development (e.g. Vygotsky, 1978; Zittoun & Cerchia, 2013) that are regarded as closely intertwined with imagination, creativity and creative learning communities, as described earlier.

The research of Playful Learning Center focuses on generating new knowledge and innovations on playful learning, thus tackling topical challenges such as the promotion of creativity, co-creation practices, and media skills in learning and education. Playful learning solutions to be researched and developed include digital game design and testing, and play-based pedagogies and learning environments for educational and cultural institutions, and working life.

The Center is also committed to investigating the theoretical and conceptual developments in our changing understanding of the nature of learning itself and, therefore, deeply interested in how we might define and harness playful learning both in the academy as well as in public and private sectors in promoting lifelong and lifewide learning. The research knowledge and capacity building of the Center is believed to have potential to open up new markets and opportunities for developments in game industry and digital learning solutions in general.

The core goals of the Center can be summarised as:

? offering new conceptualisations of play and playfulness within the context of 21st century lifelong and lifewide learning
? developing research-based understandings of playful learning activities in formal, non-formal and informal contexts of learning
? developing new pedagogic knowledge and practices to support the professional development of teachers and education professionals in fostering playful learning in their communities and institutions
? uncovering conditions for transformative co-creation processes of playful learning solutions in multidisciplinary teams
? supporting capacity building and the development of new industrial-education relationships for the co-creation of playful learning solutions
? boosting and opening new educational markets for playful learning solutions

The Centre is designed to be adaptable, and its work is not be limited by the walls of its physical lab. Instead, the concept of the Playful Learning Center can be easily applied and expanded almost anywhere. Several kindergartens, schools, libraries, museums and businesses from the Helsinki Metropolitan Area and beyond have joined in the Centre’s work and at present these various institutions are co-developing playful learning spaces, practices and resources with us in their respective contexts. Moreover, Playful Learning Center works in close collaboration with the teacher education programs of the University of Helsinki, offering research-based playful learning solutions to support Finnish teacher education, and engaging pre-service and practicing teachers in the research and development activities of the Centre.

In addition, the Center offers playful face-to-face and online workshops and educational courses in which educators, designers of playful learning solutions and other participants from young children to the elderly can collaboratively engage in various challenges and design projects that they find personally meaningful. At the launch stage of the Playful Learning Center, the core focus has been on pre-primary and primary education, but many of the practices being developed are applicable elsewhere – like the project in which the elderly explain their childhood games to children, who then code them into computer games.

The future is already here

Playful learning solutions are a rapidly growing technology industry. Crossing boundaries of different disciplines and fields of working to create a common ground for research and development is  evidently challenging. This also applies to the design of research-based and educationally meaningful playful learning solutions. The Playful Learning Center attempts to overcome these obstacles and it thrives for the development of playful solutions that potentially boost domestic and global lifelong learning and wellbeing. The Centre is not based on a fixed model, and the researchers want, above all, to make it a living, playful organisation: one that experiments, is fast, agile and open to the new. The intention is to bring its playful learning articles and services into education and society on a broad scale, so partners both local and global in different fields are needed.


We would like to express our thanks and appreciation to Dr. Sara Sintonen, Heidi Sairanen and Olavi Mertanen for their creative and visionary work for the Playful Learning Center.



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Bateson, P. & Martin, P. (2014). Play, playfulness, creativity and innovation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gee, J. (2007). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gee, J. (2013). The anti-education era. Creating smarter students through digital learning. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Hatch, M. (2013). The maker movement manifesto. McGraw-Hill.

Isaacson, W. (2011). Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Resnick, M. (2013). Lifelong Kindergarten. Cultures of Creativity. LEGO Foundation.

Salen, K. (Ed.) (2008). The ecology of games. Connecting youth, games and learning. Cambridge, MA: Mit Press.

Sicart, M. (2014). Play Matters. Cambridge, MA: Mit Press.

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Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations. Blackwell.

Zittoun, T.  &  Cerchia, F. (2013). Imagination as Expansion of Experience. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, 47, 305–324.

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Kristiina Kumpulainen Kristiina Kumpulainen is Professor of Education at Department of Teacher education, Faculty of Behavioural Sciences, University of Helsinki. At present, she is leading ‘Learning Futures’ research group at the department and acts as the national co-ordinator for NordLAC, Nordic Research Network on Researching Learning Across Contexts. Contact: Show all articles by Kristiina Kumpulainen
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