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058: Serious Fun

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

Imagine otters.

Cute, adorable otters.

Surprisingly, there is a lot we can learn from otters, especially the ways in which they innovate through play.

In his book entitled “Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination and invigorates the soul”, author, medical doctor and play researcher, Stuart Brown, describes a study with otters at the centre. He shares a story of a biologist who studies river otters and trained some of them to swim through a hoop by offering a food reward for completing the task.

Once the otters learned to do it, the animals began introducing their own twists on the task, quite literally. Instead of travelling through the hoop forwards, they would swim backwards through it and waited to see if they got a reward. They also swam half way through and stopped. After each innovative new way to travel through the hoop, they waited to see if they would be rewarded for this version of the task.

The otters were testing the system and learning the rules of the game. Otters are naturally playful creatures and they’re attracted to new and interesting things.

In his book, Brown explains it this way: “By having fun and mixing it up, the otters were learning far more about the way their world works than if they had simply performed the initial task flawlessly.”

And: “For [humans] play lies at the core of creativity and innovation. Of all animal species, humans are the biggest players of all. We are built to play and built through play.”

This resonates deeply with me and helps to validate the weird and sometimes wacky aspects of my classroom.

Yes, there are times when I’m teaching students procedural or more static how-to’s, such as how to perform a specific task in software or I’m teaching them the mechanics of how a printing press works.

But I believe that there are so many opportunities during our virtual classrooms to invite students to let down their guards, remove the need for performing any kind of task “flawlessly” and have fun in the process.

And I believe it starts with me tearing down the “serious” walls that stand between myself and students in order to expedite the building of trust, especially in an online classroom. And as the instructor, my actions speak louder than words and I’m paving the way for students to follow.

I see it as my role to lead students through meaningful and educationally-enriching experiences through play, experimentation, light-heartedness, goofiness… whatever you want to call it, I call it having “serious fun”.

A quote from illustrator, designer and educator, Lauren Hom, inspired this conversation about how I inject ‘serious fun’ into my work. In a presentation at the Adobe Max conference entitled ‘How to Build a Serious Career Creating Silly Work’ she said: “Take yourself seriously but don’t take your ideas too seriously.”

Agreed, Lauren. This quote speaks to my soul.

Let’s play a little game, shall we?

As part of many of my courses, I do a fun warm up with students at the beginning of each class. I call them “creativity boosters”. It acts as an ice breaker and helps get their brains in gear for class and it generally ties into the lesson or has a purpose beyond the obvious.

This one comes from the world of improv. It’s called ‘Yes! Let’s!’

I will say something like “Let’s go skiing”.

You will respond with: “Yes, Let’s!”

[Mime skiing]

Just before we begin, it’s important to note that in the art of improv, a ‘no’ is a dead end. Nothing kills a scene faster. This energizing, low-stakes invitation to unequivocally commit to wholeheartedly jump into something, even if you’re unsure, is a great creative and life skill to embrace.

I invite you to stop whatever you’re doing and play along, no matter how silly you may feel doing so, whether alone or with others.


Let’s go skiing

Let’s be a dog

Let’s type on a computer

Let’s drink a hot coffee

Let’s make a pizza

Lesson: Sometimes it’s best not to overthink it. Just go for it. Silence your inner critic/judge/editor so that you can be free to create.

Strategies to Embrace Serious Fun in the Virtual Classroom

To provide some context before I tell you about specific strategies I’ve used to cultivate serious fun in my virtual classroom, I renewed my teaching philosophy vows this past academic year.

I feel like I’ve injected my fair share of kooky (academically-valuable) experiences into my classroom, but virtual teaching has helped me rethink and re-imagine my teaching philosophy....

  1. Offering Students Choice - Choice as to how, where and when they engage with content and assessments, based on internally and externally-motivated factors.

  2. Actively Facilitating Connection - Connecting students to content, to classmates, to myself as the instructor and to the industry outside of the classroom.

  3. Empathy & Student Support Takes Precedence - Prioritizing student well-being, and acting in a supportive role to all students, especially those who have the best intentions but due to circumstances outside of their control, aren’t able to engage fully in the course.

  4. Introducing, Informing, Inspiring, Igniting - And it has to do with not trying to squeeze absolutely every fact and figure about a topic into my classes (guilty!), but instead introducing, informing, inspiring and igniting an interest that wasn’t there before having taken the course.

  5. Authenticity - Being authentic in a way that feels good for me, modelling to students what authenticity looks like - taking myself (and my career seriously), while simultaneously being open to trying new things, being playful, experimenting with methods, content delivery and celebrating with students when things work and when things fail. Showing them that it’s okay to use that magic f word - FAIL.

The term ‘authenticity’ gets thrown around a lot.

What does it mean?

There are a couple of definitions of authenticity but two resonated with me:

  1. not false or imitation : REAL, ACTUAL

  2. true to one's own personality, spirit, or character

In a 2018 Forbes article entitled “Bring Your Whole Self to Work”, author Mike Robbins says this: “I define authenticity as honesty, without self-righteousness, and with vulnerability. I call this the authenticity equation (Honesty – Self-Righteousness + Vulnerability = Authenticity). Authenticity is the foundation of bringing our whole selves to work. When we have the courage to be ourselves and be authentic, it both liberates us and gives other people permission to do the same. We can’t bring our whole selves to work without being authentic.”

The Power of Play

Play is much more of a state of mind than it is any one specific activity. Through this lens, ANYTHING can be made playful.

All of these strategies are designed to help me share my enthusiasm for a topic. If I’m not enthusiastic about the content, how can I expect students to get on board?

Here are some of the ways I’ve incorporated serious play into my virtual classroom:

Strategy 1: Starting with a Bang

  • Often, classes start with music

  • When I team taught a course, one of my colleagues would DJ the beginning of every class and the students LOVED it

  • Creativity booster - high energy, thought provoking, highly visual, drawing, etc.

Strategy 2: GIFs

  • Interwoven throughout like you’ve seen today

  • Clever, visual, trendy, say a lot with a little

Strategy 3: Pop Culture Videos

  • Pop culture videos (ex: clips from The Office)

  • Helps connect curriculum to the world at-large; still relevant if you don’t watch the show but a really great way to connect if you do watch the show

Strategy 4: Gamestorming

  • My colleague and co-instructor, Chris Ambedkar, is the gamestorming master

  • Gamification of all different kinds of content

Strategy 5: The Chat

  • Adding funny things to chat getting into the conversation with students when co-presenting

  • Adding to the lively chatter - witty, surprising way to connect to the group

  • Increases the fun factor and buy-in to the class

Strategy 6: Weekly Update Videos

  • Weekly update videos from me at the beginning of the week in lieu of traditional written announcements (sometimes my dog would be on camera with me)

  • Helps to humanize me as an instructor and actively work to remove the power imbalances between students and instructors through this casual interaction

Strategy 7: Broadcasting from the Bathroom

  • All rooms at the inn were full!

  • Being honest with students about broadcasting from the bathroom

  • Injecting an appropriate level of humour

  • Continues to humanize me as an imperfect person

It’s been incredibly rewarding to develop new and meaningful ways to engage an online audience. There are a lot of good reasons to have serious fun (including capturing and holding students’ attention; helping to make complex or abstract concepts ‘stickier’ and more memorable; humanizing myself as an instructor, working to actively break down traditional hierarchical barriers in the student-instructor relationship; and so on).

Ultimately, when there are lots of serious things happening in the world, a little light-heartedness goes a long way.

The classroom is a safe space that doesn’t anyways need to be very serious to be effective. In fact, I hope that today I’ve convinced you that the opposite can be true.

Music (public domain via

Podington Bear - Raccoon Family Robinson

Podington Bear - Get Happy Now

Owl - Water - Rain, ripples and brooks

Talk Paper Scissors Theme Music: Retro Quirky Upbeat Funk by Lewis Sound Production via Audio Jungle

Boat Origami Photo: Boat Origami Photo by Alex on Unsplash

Episode Cover Art: Canva (remixed by Diana Varma)



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