Taking play seriously at the Penn Libraries

The Penn Libraries’ Education Commons and Vitale Digital Media Lab facilitates and supports play through planned activities and in response to student requests, with an ultimate goal to benefit student wellness.

An institution like the University of Pennsylvania, with its distinguished system of academic research libraries, can create an intimidating impression. But Jade E. Davis, director of Educational Technology and Learning Management for the Penn Libraries works to make the impression of Penn as an Ivy League institution less intimidating and more accessible. She and her team are leaning into the role of libraries as a platform to spark imagination and discovery. Davis, alongside colleagues Steve Scaduto, Christine Kemp, and Tex Kang, are designing intentional experiences for the Penn community based on a type of activity that many don’t associate with libraries: play.

Tex Kang holds a giant replica of a gaming system control.
Tex Kang, program coordinator for Technology and Play. (Image: Penn Libraries)

Throughout the library system but especially within the Education Commons and the Vitale Digital Media Lab, the Learning Enrichment team regularly facilitates and supports play through both planned activities and in response to student requests, with an ultimate goal to benefit student wellness and well-being. Wellness and play are deeply connected, because play helps humans—and all mammals, for that matter—to build relationships and community with one another. Davis says that the Libraries’ play activities generate “a space for creating mutual connections and building relationships, instead of just places where we are dealing with the dynamics of interpersonal strife” that can arise in competitive, high-pressure environments. Much like the Libraries’ wellness offerings, Scaduto adds that the opportunities for play “really prevent people from falling through the cracks and getting lost.”

There’s plenty to learn about oneself by playing alone, whether learning a new skill, experimenting, or making art; but playing with others also helps develop the soft skills that can be essential in the workplace—and in life, generally—such as teamwork and communication.

“Play is just a form of communication with others,” Kang says, adding that learning someone else’s style of play can help us relate better to them.

Collaborating with others through play, rather than through serious work, is a valuable use of time because it creates a safe environment, Kemp says: “You’re willing to take a chance and try something out and experiment in an environment where you feel like there’s no judgment.”

In fact, it’s perfectly fine to fail while playing, because there are no stakes. A low-risk environment supports innovation and creativity.

“Play builds resilience. Play allows people to go through the emotions and actions of taking risks, knowing that the consequences will not be a permanent consequence,” Davis says.

This story is by Amanda Alexander. Read more at Penn Libraries.