A joystick and eight cables plugged into a black box with blue lights.

by Daryl Peel



The Playful Learning Conference in Manchester is run on an annual basis and for Learning Designers who focus on playful learning design it’s the highlight of the year. Three days of fun activities, inspiring keynotes, networking and sharing ideas of projects being done in various institutions around the world.

It all started about 2 weeks before the actually conference began, a random email appeared setting attendees a few challenges, the main one being setting up a twitter account… for a cuddly toy. That toy would accompany us to the conference and ended up doing just as much as we did. The idea behind it was to encourage attendees to network with of conference goers. I can honestly say that I didn’t take a massive part in the activity but I can really see the benefits of doing it in this situation.  Research shows that the use of avatars/alternative personas in education can personalise learning and helps learners to form relationships (Nagra, 2015). The toys were also set challenges that ranged from speaking to your favourite toy to kidnapping someone’s toy for a ransom. It was all done in good humour and really got people talking and tweeting.



It wasn’t just playing with cuddly toys, There were a number of keynotes such as Niki Woods, Rikki Toft-Norgard and Deborah Bullivant. And what great keynotes they were! Rikke is an associated professor in educational design and technology at the Centre for Teaching Development and digital Media, Aarhus University, Denmark. Her session on the signature of playful teaching and learning helped us to look at making sure playfulness doesn’t just make an activity look fun but actually connects to the deep structures of pedagogical design.


Deborah Bullivant is the founding director of Grimm & Co, a study centre based around the Apothecary to the Magical. This centre helps various ages of learner to increase their writing skills by emphasising literacy, language, and the arts with a consistent focus on meaningful engagement. The keynote she gave was inspirational and when you saw the reactions of the students taking part in various sessions run in the study centre genuinely put a tear in my eye. Her main message from the session showed of some of the most important aspects of Game Design Learning, internal motivation, narrative and playful design. The whole packaging of the study centre is great fun, emphasising a shop selling magical items and objects to mythical creatures (actually it’s shower gel and other products, shhhh), I feel this setting really does what it set out to do and that is to inspire and encourage creative writing in young learners.


Escape Rooms

Escape rooms were a big talking point at the conference and we were lucky enough to be invited to talk about how to construct your own escape room activities, we finally revealed the digital Learning 5-step plan to escape room design as well as my personal puzzle cards to inspire your puzzle design. Overall, our session was positively received with people enjoying the demo case we took with us and asking a lot of intriguing questions and hopefully we will see some interesting examples appearing in the future. We also had a chance to play Liz Cables ultimate escape room  that contained over 200+ puzzles, and wow, it was difficult! Every attendee took part and it took around 3-4 hours to solve it, at least I think we solved it… I’ll admit that it beat me, well done Liz! It was just professional escape room designers but we also had student escape rooms that were amazingly designed with some impressive puzzle ideas that I hadn’t seen before, they also utilised video, music and various props to really give a great feeling to the activities.

Playing Games

One thing that stood out at the conference was Troublesome Tanks, A cooperative game created by Spooky Elephant Collective from Hull University. An insane multiplayer game that used a custom built controller to force players to work together. The premise of the game was simple, blow up your opponents tank before they blow up yours, actually doing this was anything but simple though. Each team had three jobs, gunner, driver and engineer, the first two jobs are self explanatory, but the engineer was where things got really interesting, this players main job was to recharge each component of the tank by bashing (like a mad man) a button and changing which component is plugged into each part of the main part of the controller that acts like a type of hub for the various controls. This led to some mad moments where you would have the cannon lined up for the perfect shot and there isn’t enough power to shoot. Argh! Apart from the game being fun it showed that there are some great alternatives out there for not just educative fun but perhaps team building activities. Check it out and if you get a chance give the guys a shout and have a play.


Overall, The three days of the conference were a whirlwind of amazing activities, sessions and ideas that really brought together learning designers from all over the world and I would honestly suggest to anyone interested in playful learning to give it a go, you won’t regret your time spent there.


Such a Playful Conference 2017

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