Meet Rachelle – PLA member profile

Each month we will introduce a PLA member through 5 photos telling their Playful Learning journey. This month, we introduce you to…

Rachelle O’Brien: A very serious Educational Developer at the University of Liverpool. That’s not quite true, I’m somewhat serious, but mostly not. I’m also trying to get my colleagues to refer to me as the ‘game master’ with mixed results – I have no idea why they’re resistant! I try to sprinkle playfulness everywhere I go, like glitter. Follow me on twitter for ponderings and the occasional blog post @rachelleeobrien

Level 1: Once upon a time…

I’m going to start by talking about my childhood. I’m from a family of storytellers. Not just in the book sense, there is no possibility of having a conversation without it involving a story of some description. This is just how we are as a family. I was always the lucky one as well, my mum was chief story reader because she always has the best character voices. I’ll never forget going camping and sitting around with all of my cousins (there are many) while mum read the BFG and various other Roald Dahl books to us.

Girl reading under tree
A family of storytellers. Credit Pixabay

The power of imagination is something I have always known. My first memories involve worlds of fantasy with castles and dragons, trials and tribulations and villains and heroes. Imaginary games shaped my childhood with climbing trees to escape lava fields and running around the school playground with my friends pretending to breathe fire.

Level 2: Becoming a dreamer

This imagination and curiosity was fuelled by my family. My mum always encouraged me to be curious and dream big while enabling me to dance to my own beat. Between her and my brother, they helped me to believe that anything was possible, if you worked hard enough. This is something that has stuck with me my whole life.

The Disney Castle
Rachelle’s favourite place in the world

Then came Disney World. Where could be better to visit as a child with a wild imagination and an insatiable curiosity? It didn’t take long for me to fall in love. Castles, adventures and a place for my dreams and imagination to come alive. Disney World remains one of my favourite places in the world.

Level 3: Video games

It was as I moved into high school that life got a bit serious. Growing up is hard, especially when you realise the dream world you have been living in doesn’t reflect reality. Becoming a moody teenager, I wasn’t quite ready to let those stories go. It was at this point that I also discovered computers and the internet. I stumbled upon a game called Runescape, which I now know to be an MMORPG, but it had a killer story with quests and armour (and those all important dragons!).

I spent many hours of my teenage years in the fantasy lands of Falador and the Goblin Village, fishing, fighting and smelting. If I was really lucky, my brother would play on Runescape with me and help me. I was never particularly good at the game, I played for the social aspect and the immersion and escapism it provided. My brother will never let me forget the day I hacked his account (guessed his password) and stole his Dragon armour. We still discuss it today, even though it’s nearly 20 years ago!

screenshot of video game Runescape
Stealing dragon armour in Runescape

And then one day, I stopped. I stopped playing. I stopped dreaming and having such an overactive imagination. I very suddenly became very serious and this lasted quite a while. We will call this ‘The Dark Times’.

Level 4: Finding what I’d lost

The Dark Times are sponsored by the mantra that ‘adults are serious and there is no time for play’.

This is how I thought, for a long time. I have no idea where it came from or why, but moody teenager turned into serious adult… and then it all changed, again.

My nephew and niece came along. I was honoured to be named their godmother and I remember at the time thinking that I needed to be serious because being a godparent is a big responsibility. For a long time, in The Dark Times, I was boring aunty, I didn’t do fun things because adults are serious. Spoiler, I was completely and utterly wrong. The most wrong I have ever been.

But then one day, I got bored of being boring. I decided that if I wanted to be the best aunty and godparent I could be, I needed to remember how to be fun. I needed to get out of The Dark Times and chill out, and figure out how to just go with it…. So I did.

My mum lives right near a forest, which became the magical forest and one of my key aunty duties became taking the children to the magical forest so the grownups could have a break. Before long, we started going on quests in the forest looking for ruins of buildings or treasure.

2 children wearing swimming goggles in a forest with an iPad and egg
Searching for dragon eggs in the forest

This is a picture of one of our most epic adventures. We all donned dragon glasses (swimming goggles) to go and search for dragon eggs. As you can see here, my niece found a real life dragon egg which we took home and hatched. We made sure to take our dragon finding backpacks filled with snacks (of course) to lure dragons and my nephew recorded and voiced over our adventure on his iPad. For the first time in my adult life, I lost track of time, we got completely lost and didn’t care and we just… went with it. I think this is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to when he talks about finding flow.

I vowed after experiencing the sheer joy of this experience to leave my boring aunty times behind and be the best aunty I can be by re-finding my curiosity and imagination. I’m proud to say, I haven’t disappointed… and I may have gone in the other direction completely! What can I say, I was always encouraged to be a dreamer!

Level 5: End game

Once I re-found that imagination, curiosity and gave myself permission to be playful, it was like a hole inside of me was being filled. Like I’d been missing something for a while and it was suddenly back again. It didn’t take long until this started shining out of my face like sunbeams (10 points if you got the Roald Dahl reference!) and I started looking at the world differently.

When I look at the world now I see it as a giant obstacle course – think floor is lava but on a life scale. I spend my days trying to traverse obstacles and figure out new paths and routes, sometimes dancing or singing on the way. I do make sure to remember to keep looking back to check out where I’ve come from and look forward to plot where I’m going. It can be messy, unpredictable and terrifyingly organised – but it’s me. Playfulness to me now is like Lego, it just fits.

2 people in front of the Disney castle
Rachelle looking at Disney from a new angle

So let’s bring my playful learning journey (so far) to a close by going full circle, back to a world of stories, of imagination, curiosity and dreaming – to Disney and in this pictures case, Disneyland. But this time as an adult.

Disney looks different from this angle. Is it because I’m not looking up quite so much now that I’ve grown a little bit taller? Or is it because I’m hyper-aware of detail, I want to learn everything, I have my eyes wide open and I’m looking for the obstacles? I’m not sure. It’s not a bad different, it’s a more appreciative one for me. The intricacies and attention to detail. The daring to dream and make the impossible a reality. Do you know that if Disney think up a ride and the ride system doesn’t exist, they just make it?! I find this incredible. This level of innovation and Imagineering where you can literally make your dreams reality is surely playful utopia?

Although, if you could make your dreams real, would this be utopia or would this just make your dreams less vibrant? I’m going to finish on a couple of things I’ve pondered for a while. Are some people always playful or never playful? Does playfulness stay with people their whole life? Do we play as children, forget for a bit and the lucky ones remember to be playful as adults? If this is my experience, how is it for others? What happens if we make playfulness a priority so people don’t forget and playfulness becomes an essential part of learning? That is exactly the kind of playful learning journey I’d love to be a part of.

Thanks for sharing your story and your photos Rachelle.

If you are unlucky, you might be selected as next month’s sacrifice chosen member – we will be in touch!

2 thoughts on “Meet Rachelle – PLA member profile”

  1. What an utterly beautiful blog post, Rachelle. It actually got me a bit teary! Play has the absolute ability to change the world – particularly when people like you embrace it.

  2. Helen Williams

    Rachel – I love your story! I feel we are some of the lucky few that realise we have to grow old, but we don’t have to grow up.

    The relationship that adults have with play is, to me, rather similar to the relationship with drawing. As a child, we are confident in both, and good at both. As we grow up, we are led to believe that both are frivolous activities, and therefore through lack of practice we lose our playing and drawing skills. I love how in your story this phase becomes ‘the Dark Times’! Once we give ourselves permission to believe we have the right and the ability to give them a go, confidence returns and so does the fun and enjoyment. Let’s play on!

    Thanks for sharing


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