Serious Play


Flexible formats for inquiry and problem solving

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … scope of possible actions and interpretations
  • Knowing is … contributing substantially
  • Learner is … player
  • Learning is … serious playing
  • Teaching is … problem setting, parameter defining




Serious Play encompasses a range of play-based, problem-focused, and inquiry-oriented formats for learning. Among the many possibilities, video games, improvisational theatre, and role play figure prominently. Uniting themes include focus on task, flexibility in activity, toying with boundaries, oriented to possibility, and freedom from judgment – all while having fun. Serious Play is often linked to Design Thinking, with common ground on such elements as ideating, empathizing, prototyping, and testing. Associated discourses include:
  • Serious Fun – similar in intention to Serious Play, but more typically invoked in educational encounters with children
  • Serious Games (Applied Games) – a game designed to support understanding and/or develop skills – and, so, one in which entertainment is a necessary-but-secondary quality


Serious Play is focused mainly on adult learners and co-workers. Critics have argued that it has limited value unless participants are fully conscious of the purposes of their engagement and invested in working together on the issue or problem at hand.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences


Status as a Theory of Learning

Serious Play is about structuring contexts to support innovative learning, but it is not a perspective that is oriented toward or that affords new insight into the complex dynamics of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Serious Play is perhaps best construed as a theory of teaching. It is mainly concerned with formats to support engaged and innovative activity.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Serious Play meets our criteria with regard to theoretical soundness and fit with associated discourses. It does not appear to have been the focus of much empirical study, however.


  • Serious Fun
  • Serious Games (Applied Games)

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Serious Play” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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