Playful approach in teaching Political Communications

Amber Macintyre, Politics and International Relations


College Postgraduate Teaching Prize 2018

Playful pedagogy can enrich a varied teaching practice. The benefits are outlined here as well as a detailed how-to for three play-based activities. The activities are designed for the Introduction to Political Communications course for second year undergraduates, which lends itself to practical activities. However, the detail in how to implement these activities, as well as a reflection on the benefits and drawbacks will hopefully allow other practitioners to adapt them to their course as desired.

As Brian Sutton-Smith (2009) notes, play is an elusive concept, easily experienced but difficult to capture theoretically. Stuart Brown (2010) captures the commonly associated principles in a definition I will be drawing from: "an absorbing and intrinsically motivated activity, apparently purposeless, that provides enjoyment and a suspension of self-consciousness."

Play as pedagogy can contribute to:

  • Creativity: Play is most commonly associated with creativity. Experiments have shown that introducing a playful approach can increase creativity in children and adults (Zabelina and Robinson 2010; Glynn, 1994).
  • Innovation: The nature of play allows for redefining reality and considering new or unexpected connections between ideas by allowing for a detachment from the person from conventions or boundaries set by regime (Kunter, 2014; Lecomte, 2016). This is partially due to their abstraction in which we can see ideas that cannot be experienced through words alone.
  • Social Communication: Playful activities provide opportunities for alternative forms and styles of communication which creates opportunities to relate in diverse ways to both other people and the topic. Through these different forms of expression, a legitimate space for emotions can be created which has growing recognition for importance in learning. Furthermore, things which might usually be personally and politically sensitive can be dealt with levity which allows for learning and therapeutic effects (Lecomte, 2014).
  • Experiential learning: Students retain substantially more when ‘doing’ than from what they read, hear or say (Orsini, 2017). When ‘doing’ an indivudal transforms themselves allowing new and unexpected attitudes, behaviours and understandings (Lecomte, 2014).
  • Attendance: Games and playful activities has shown to improve attendance (Orsini, 2017) which feedback from my students confirms.




 Tinfoil Avatars, 20 minutes

  1. Each student is given around 40cms of tin foil, spare should be left so anyone can help themselves
  2. Half the class is instructed to answer the question “What three attributes does a good politician have?” The other half the class is asked “What three attributes does a bad politician have?”
  3. They are to make these attributes with the tinfoil. It is usually necessary to give a couple of examples e.g. “if you think a politician should be a good listener, you might create an ear, if you think they should be generous you might create a “giving hand”. It can be a single creation or avatar that captures all three attributes or three separate creations.
  4. Give them 5-10 minutes. Allow for an awkward minute at the start without interfering as they get used to the freedom and unusualness of the activity. You may join in and make your own as the teacher, try not to interfere too much with the activity as it is happening.
  5. After, each student describes their creations Let them describe these in their own words and give everyone a chance to speak.
  6. Follow up a discussion by asking what similarities did people see and what differences? Was there anything surprising in what they saw?
  7. The class then examine how politicians often think about symbolism of their own appearances: how they talk, what they wear and what their surroundings say about them to reflect their best qualities and limit their negative ones.


Benefits: This activity allows students to engage with the emotionally charged subject of politics in an abstract and fun way. They can consider their own opinions and express them in a way that is more expansive than language (with imagery and symbols), which his great for those less confident with either the English language or speaking as a skill.. As they explain their creations, they can express opinions about politics in a way that can by both funny and clearly personal, this provides a stepping stone for a more constructive conversation around their differences.


Drawbacks: While most students gave positive feedback both at the end of the class and in formal college feedback, one student made it clear they wanted “no more tin foil exercises.” It is an abstract task that requires people to be comfortable with little instruction and a sense of unknown while opening-up about their own opinions. While this may be positive for some learners, and teachers, it will not be for all. This is true for all different pedagogies and as such this activity, as any, should be done within a medley of approaches.


Canvassing Role Play, 40 minutes

  1. First a short overview is given of what door to door canvassing is, and the context this exercise will take place in, in this case, canvassing for a pro-gay marriage charity in Northern Ireland).
  2. The class are given an overview of a script outline (first, introduce your agenda, secondly, assess the likelihood of support from the person who opened the door, finally, attempt to gain petition signatures and email sign ups)
  3. The class is split into groups of 2-4
  4. Half of the groups are given aggregate level data for a specific constituency in Northern Ireland, the other half of the groups are given a specific profile of an individual
  5. In their groups they must create their own sample script to give to a canvasser – if there are many questions a clip of a canvasser going door to door is shown (there are many on YouTube).
  6. An individual from each group role plays the script with the teacher playing the role of the person opening the door. The teacher should base their responses to all groups on the individual profile that had been to half the students. The teacher can make choices from their own how difficult they’d like to make it for the students.
  7. This exercise is followed with 5 minutes to reflect alone with suggested questions such as “how did you feel when talking to the person at the door? What was the hardest thing about writing the script? Did you feel you were successful? What would you do differently next time?”
  8. The group then discuss what they saw and how they felt. The exercise usually shows that those who have a detailed profile on an individual find writing a script much easier. Further, those with an aggregate data are more likely to give up and finish the script quickly as they don’t know whether the individual at the door is persuadable or not.


Benefits: There are various aspects to this activity that contain the playful beneficial elements to learning: social interactions, emotional empathy, experience and problem-based learning. Firstly, the activity is a collaboration requiring social interactions with each other: As they are given creativity freedom the creation of the script involves some negotiation and being able to express themselves clearly to each other. Secondly, particularly as the role play starts, there is laughter and usually forgiveness for mistakes creating opportunities to empathise with not only each other but people in canvassing roles. Finally, the purpose of two groups is to show the difference of aggregate and personalised data and communications and for them to experience the problem themselves. This allows them an experience-based understanding of the theory as well as for practical education outside of the academic assessments.


Drawbacks: This exercise requires students to take part in public speaking, which while being a strength, requires a space where they feel confident to speak up and take risks. Sometimes the personality of students can affect how good the scripts are taking away from the problem example of data. In these cases, a general discussion after around how data is used and what differences it could make can still cover this aspect of the learning.


World Creation: Journalists and Politicians, 50 minutes

  1. The class is split into groups of three or four.
  2. The class is given materials that are both crafty and accessible: sponges, marshmallows, tinfoil, pasta, sponges, cardboard, pipe cleaners, pegs etc. (this list can be expanded to anything you can find!)
  3. Half the groups are given the instruction “create the world of politicians” and the other half are given the instruction “create the world of media”
  4. Both groups are given the following questions to help guide their work: Who are the main actors in this world? What do they look like and what are their key attributes? What do these actors do? Where do they live? How do they communicate with each other? Do they have enemies? Do they have allies? What do these actors look like? How do they relate to the politicians or media actors? What does their day to day work look like? Do they have any rituals or sacred places? Do they work towards one aim or goal?
  5. They are given half an hour for the task
  6. After the students should describe their world to the other groups, and the other groups comment on what they see and the similarities and differences.
  7. If there is time, the activity can be expanded to ask them to bridge two worlds together. One group with media and another with politicians examine how they might create a bridge that makes sense between their worlds.


Benefits: The abstraction and symbolism can help students make connections, realisations and understandings about the worlds of these actors that previously may have been difficult to access through reading and theory. It also allows the students to express themselves in symbols and to each other. Where they interpret and describe to each other this helps them understand how to describe what symbols mean, expanding their communication skills on both their opinions and the complex subject.


Drawbacks: This, as with the first activity, requires a comfort with the unknown as it expands. It also requires the resources for crafts and clean up time after.


Further reading:

Brown, S., & Vaughan, C. (2010). Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (Reprint edition). New York: J P Tarcher/Penguin Putnam.

Collectif, & Lecomte, F. (2016). Théâtre et réconciliation : Méthode pour une pratique théâtrale dans les zones de conflit (01 ed.). Bruxelles: La lettre volée.

Glynn, M. A. (1994). Effects of work task cues and play task cues on information processing, judgment, and motivation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 79(1), 34–45.

Kunter, Y. (2014). Creativity in Practice.

Sutton-Smith, B. (2009). The Ambiguity of Play (Revised ed. edition). Harvard University Press.

Zabelina, D. L., & Robinson, M. D. (2010). Child’s play: Facilitating the originality of creative output by a priming manipulation. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 4(1), 57–65.




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