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Voices of the Global Community


Allison Ewing-Cooper, University of Arizona
Meredith V. Parker, University of Arizona

Play is defined by a sense of enjoyment, a desire to do again, and a suspension of time (Brown, 2009). While we normally think about play as something children do, play is also for adults. Brown (2009) categorizes eight play styles in adults: the joker (entertaining and jesting), the kinesthete (moving and playing sports), the explorer (traveling and doing new things), the competitor (playing games with winners and losers), the director (organizing and hosting), the collector (gathering and obtaining), the artist/creator (making and creating), and the storyteller (writing and reading). Given its proliferation and normalization, play can be utilized with all ages and in all fields, including business, education, and academic advising (Schaefer, 2003).

There are many noted benefits of play for people of all ages. Play in adults contributes to an overall sense of well-being, utilizes the left and right sides of the brain, and helps people feel better physically (Schaefer, 2003). Play is also associated with better academic performance, social skills, and mental health. Flett and colleagues (2017) found that female college students who colored exhibited fewer depression and anxiety symptoms than the control group who did not color. Another study reported that playful young adults perceived less stress and exhibited better coping techniques (Magnuson & Barnett, 2013).

Play can specifically be beneficial in academic advising. When at play, people relax, drop their filters, and feel freer to share; this response can be critical in assisting reluctant, quiet, or unsure students. College students can use creativity and imagination to make decisions, explore options, and create plans. Additionally, play can assist students in solving conflicts and sharing values, both of which help students make educated decisions regarding their college choices. Play can be utilized in all six phases of the popular advising approach, appreciative advising (Bloom, Hutson, & He, 2008): disarm, discover, dream, design, deliver, and don’t settle.

In the disarm stage, advisors establish trust in a welcoming and supportive environment. Students come to advisors with doubts and fears; play can help allay these fears and build confidence. Manipulatives, such as LEGO sets, fidget spinners, play dough, and Rubik’s Cubes, on an advisor’s desk can help students relax and open up. Playful items in an office can also help establish the advisor’s office as a welcoming, warm place. One of the authors of this piece has a variety of playful objects in her office, including a pink llama, a cat nutcracker, a fantasy football trophy, and a wheel (that students can spin and answer different questions). The other author used LEGO play materials regularly with a shy, uncertain student; she would build things with the student while talking about his academic plans. The LEGO pieces helped him open up, share his concerns with her, and create future plans. Using manipulatives in advising can promote better communication or simply allow students to create while talking or working out problems.

Advisors can also use play to discover students’ hopes, dreams, and goals. Having students design a coat of arms is a fun method of discovery. Students fill in four quadrants, with words or pictures, answering some question. Questions the authors have used in the past include hometown, favorite quote or song lyric, future career, and me at my best. Quizzes or sorting card games can also be used in the discovery phase. One author used a sorting game where students chose between two different types of career options (e.g., advanced degree vs. bachelor’s degree; every day is different vs. routine) to have students explore their career interests in a particular major. Other advisors have used sorting games to have undecided students explore major options. One advisor created QR codes on the bottom of toy rubber ducks to engage students in learning concepts. Quizzes also exist for students to explore different major options, as well as well-known personality quizzes like CliftonStrengths for Students and True Colors.

In the dream phase, students and advisors imagine possible lives. One great play activity for mapping these possibilities is the design thinking activity of Odyssey Planning (Burnett & Evans, 2016). In Odyssey Planning, students create three life plans for the next five, ten, or twenty years: the first plan is for the path they are currently on, the second plan is their alternative life (if life one wasn’t an option), and the third plan is their wild idea. For example, one student’s first plan is to be a lawyer (they are a political science major preparing for school), their second plan is to run a non-profit dedicated to social justice, and their third option is to be Beyoncé’s best friend and travel the world with her on tour. This activity helps students visualize their goals, explore possible futures, and reflect on past decisions.

In the design phase, students can use Happenstance Learning to map out the actual steps (e.g., activities, clubs, classes) they will engage in to reach their goals. Happenstance Learning posits that students should not make one single career decision, but instead engage in a variety of exploratory actions to maximize their benefits and opportunities to learn (Krumboltz, 2009). For example, by simply answering an email inviting participants to an interview event, one student got a dream job at IBM and furthered her career more than she ever planned. The authors have used Happenstance Learning to have students map out each year at college and the activities they plan to participate in. Then, students reflect on how they could learn more about potential career options by listing who they already know, what connections they could make, and what steps they could take to gain more skills.

Here’s an example (a student who ended up, by happenstance, as an academic advisor!):

To aid students in the deliver phase, advisors could have students draw a line of their journey (e.g., last semester, last academic year). Advisors could then engage students in questions about what circumstances led to their dips and what strengths they utilized during their peaks. Advisors can also draw their own lines (the authors have used this activity with advising teams) to show that success is a squiggly line.

Finally, don’t settle for work without play. As advisors encourage and engage with students, they shouldn’t forget to engage, encourage, and play themselves. There are many different play activities advisors can participate in (all these activities have been done by the authors). Take time at advising team meetings to paint, design, and create. One activity is to decorate a canvas with an advising philosophy. Another activity is to create a fun committee (the authors’ committee is called REC—Restore Energy Committee). Semesterly activities are scheduled including walks, happy hours, and team lunches (all activities are optional and only take a small amount of time). Book clubs are also a fun idea; our book club meets in a tea shop so as to not be in the office. Playing at work is associated with a number of positive benefits, including lower absenteeism, less stress, and more productivity (Petelczyc, et al., 2017). So, in conclusion, get out there and play!


Bloom, J. L., Hutson, B. L., & He, Y. (2008). The appreciative advising revolution. Stipes Publishing.

Brown, S. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. Penguin Group.

Burnett, B., & Evans, D. (2016). Designing your life: How to build a well-lived, joyful life. Alfred A. Knopf.

Flett, J. A. M., Lie, C., Riordan, B. C., Thompson, L. M., Conner, T. S., & Hayne, H. (2017). Sharpen your pencils: Preliminary evidence that adult coloring reduces depressive symptoms and anxiety. Creativity Research Journal, 29(4), 409–416. https://doi.org/10.1080/10400419.2017.1376505

Krumboltz, J. D. (2009). The Happenstance Learning Theory. Journal of Career Assessment, 17(2), 135-154 https://doi.org/10.1177/1069072708328861

Magnuson, C. D., & Barnett, L. A. (2013). The playful advantage: How playfulness enhances coping with stress. Leisure Sciences: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 35(2), 129–144. 

Petelczyc, C. A., Capezio, A., Wang, L., Restubog, S. L. D., & Aquino, K. (2017). Play at work: An integrative review and agenda for future research. Journal of Management, 44(1), 161–190. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206317731519

Schaefer, C. (2003). Play therapy with adults. Wiley.

Posted in: 2023 June 46:2


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Academic Advising Today, a NACADA member benefit, is published four times annually by NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. NACADA holds exclusive copyright for all Academic Advising Today articles and features. For complete copyright and fair use information, including terms for reproducing material and permissions requests, see Publication Guidelines.