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Homo Ludens: Why We Play


UPDATE 18-09-2023: Start of the class moved by one week.

Topics: Play, Dark Play, Joking Relations, Ethnography, Embodied Knowledge, Liminality, Religion, Art, Performance, Politics.
Social and Behavioural Sciences: Cultural Anthropology, Political Sciences, Psychology, Child Studies; History; Art Studies; Religion Studies.
Skills: Researching, Analysing, Generating Solutions; Project-based working, Collaborating, Oral communication, Written communication, Presenting, Societal awareness, Reflecting, Independent learning, Resilience, Creativity.

Admission requirements:

This course is an (extracurricular) Honours Class: an elective course within the Honours College programme. Third year students who don’t participate in the Honours College, have the opportunity to apply for a Bachelor Honours Class. Students will be selected based on i.a. their motivation and average grade.


This course in its essence is play.

Inspired by the famous Leiden historian Johan Huizinga, who understood that '... civilisation is, in its earliest phases, played. It does not come from play (...), it arises in and as play, and never leaves it.' (Huizinga 1955:173), play takes centre stage in this course. In order to understand play, we have to play. Therefore, this course consists of three pillars: doing play (in the classroom), thinking play (by creatively applying academic concepts), and exploring play (by going out in the world equipped with play theory).

In 8 seminars we will study play within different social fields such as kinship, religion, politics and wellbeing, but also the arts and child development. Children obviously play. But as adults, we also play: not only in leisure time (e.g. music, sports and games) but also in our professional lives, the element of play is a driving force in our behaviour and choices. In this course, we aim to combine theoretical insights and critical reflections with experimental modes of learning. Therefore, next to the application of imaginative practices and creative methodologies in class students will look for play in their own lifeworld and conduct field research.

Leading questions for this course are: Why should we study such a frivolous activity as play? Why, how, when and where do humans play? How do we even recognize play? Is play connected to the wild side of human nature? Can it be serious? Why are ambiguities and paradoxes so inherently connected to play? How is play connected to our deepest desires and fears?

Course objectives:

After completing this course, you will be:

  • familiar with a broad range of insights on human play and playful behaviour;

  • able to conduct qualitative research;

  • be able to value and reflect upon experiential learning through the use of our senses

  • be able to take your position in current scholarly debates on play as an essential part of human nature and society.

Programme and timetable:

The sessions of this class will take place on Fridays from 13:15-16:00.

During each session, we play, discuss play theory and talk about your research project.

Session 1: October 6 (Pieter de la Court building, room 1A01)
Introduction: Play Theory

Session 2: October 13 (Pieter de la Court building, 1B01 - Living Lab)
Play and child development

Session 3: October 20 (Pieter de la Court building, room 1B01 - Living Lab)
Playing with Kinship / Play in Kinship

Session 4: October 27 (Pieter de la Court building, room 1B01 - Living Lab)
Religion as Play

Session 5: November 3 (Pieter de la Court building, room 1B01 - Living Lab)
Playing Politics

Session 6: November 10 (Pieter de la Court building, room 1B01 - Living Lab)
Play as Source for Well-Being

Session 7: November 17 (online; individual half hour timeslots)
Individual online meeting with instructors on research proposal

Session 8: November 24 (online; individual half hour timeslots)
Individual online meetings with instructors & Fieldwork

Session 9: December 1 (online; individual half hour timeslots)
Individual online meetings with instructors & Fieldwork

Session 10: December 8 (Pieter de la Court building, room 1B01 - Living Lab)
Art as Play: creative workshop

Session 11: December 15 (13.15 - 17.00) (Pieter de la Court building, room 1B01 - Living Lab)
Concluding Seminar: Research Presentations (depending on number of research projects, this meeting may take longer than 3 hours)

Pieter de la Court building Living Lab, room1A01 and three sessions online

Reading list:

Huizinga, J. (1949) Homo Ludens, a study of the play element in culture. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul (Foreword and page 1 – 14)

Aupers, S (2015) Spiritual Play: Encountering the Sacred in World of Warcraft. Chapter 3 in: de Lange, Michiel Playful Identities: The Ludification of Digital Media Cultures, Amsterdam University Press

Nicolopoulou, A. (1993). Play, Cognitive Development, and the Social World: Piaget, Vygotsky, and Beyond in: Human Development 36:1-23

Launay, R. (2006) Practical Joking (La Practique de la Plaisanterie) in: Cahiers d’Études Africaines 46(184): 795-808.

Vandewaetere, S. (2015) Playing After Auschwitz: the case of Primo Levi and Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens. Incontri

And a number of documentaries.

Other literature will be announced in class and via Brightspace.

Course load and teaching method:

This course is worth 5 ECTS, which means the total course load equals 140 hours:

  • Meetings: 8 x 3h = 24 hours (participation is mandatory)

  • Individual online meetings 3 x ½ hours = 1½ hours (participation is mandatory)

  • Literature reading: 5 hours x 7 weeks = 35 hours

  • Preparatory assignments: 3 hours x 7 weeks = 21 hours

  • Preparing and writing research proposal: 25 hours

  • Fieldwork: 2 x 3h = 6 hours

  • Final assignment: 30 hours

Assessment methods:

  • 10% Preparatory assignments, deadline: each week before noon on Friday;

  • 30% Research proposal, deadline: before meeting 6;

  • 20% Presentation during class, various deadlines;

  • 40% Final assignment (video, academic blog series or artistic expression with explanatory text).

Students can only pass this course after successful completion of all partial exams.

Brightspace and uSis:

Brightspace will be used in this course. Upon admission students will be enrolled in Brightspace by the teaching administration.

Please note: students are not required to register through uSis for the Bachelor Honours Classes. Your registration will be done centrally.

Application process:

Submitting an application for this course is possible from Monday 21 August 2023 up to and including Tuesday 12 September 2023 23:59 through the link on the Honours Academy student website.

Note: students don’t have to register for the Bachelor Honours Classes in uSis. The registration is done centrally before the start of the class.

Nienke van der Heide:
Nienke Muurling: