Mathias Poulsen

Play Activist & Researcher @ Designskolen Kolding

Welcome to my PhD project


With this first post, I kick off my PhD blog, where I aim to share news about my project, “Designing for Playful Democratic Participation”, whenever I can. The project starts on December 1st and will be situated in the Lab for Social Design at Designschool Kolding. In the project, I will explore play as democratic participation within the context of junk playground settings (if you want to read the actual application, it’s available here).

Every post on this blog is an invitation to join the conversation and play along, as I sincerely hope this is the beginning of not just a project for me, but for a much larger community.


The paths we follow are never straightforward or linear, there is no train that will take us straight to the destination. On the contrary, our lives are messy, unpredictable and chaotic – just like the world in which we exist.

“There is no order here and there is no middle ground, Nothing can be predicted and nothing can be planned”

Nick Cave, “Fireflies

To me, that’s a given, a basic premise and, in fact, a positive thing. That’s what makes for all the adventures I so immensely cherish (and I can guarantee it will also be a recurring theme in my project).

Once we look back over the actions, decisions and coincidences that have shaped our path, it happens that a more or less clear pattern emerges. For me, that pattern is a question I have asked over and over, with no easy answer ever in sight: how do we, as human beings, develop confidence in our own agency, how do we learn that the world could be different and that we all have some capacity to make it so? How do we, individually and collectively, become empowered to act in the world – to instigate change in the world?

Over the years, especially while with the CounterPlay community, I have observed something intriguing in this regard: in play, people experience agency, pushing their curiosity and imagination to explore how the world and their lives might be different. The festival was always also an attempt at exploring exactly that – how can play allow and inspire us to live differently together and what might a more playful society look like? I am reminded of Butler’s notion that “even the political question, how ought we to live together? depends upon an organization of life that makes it possible to entertain those questions meaningfully.” These playful interactions, the setting, the atmosphere and the community apparently provided such an “organization of life”. As my dear friend Helle (and, as it happens, now also my co-supervisor) wrote about CounterPlay in International Journal of Play:

“The festival invites you to surrender to the movement of play and to place faith in the future, without knowing where play will take you. In this way, the play festival inspires hope for the future of play and incites ‘play courage’ in all, because play is first and foremost with and for its participants.”

Helle Marie Skovbjerg, International Journal of Play

In contrast, “normal” democratic participation ever so often seems detached from our daily lives, our dreams and desires. As I recently wrote in “Framing Play Design”, “If the current crisis of democracy is indeed a crisis of participation, it seems likely that this is in turn caused by a crisis of imagination. We have apparently been unable to adequately reimagine a set of democratic participatory practices that are meaningful in contemporary society.”.

This is the paradox at the heart of my PhD project: we know how to engage in deep, sincere investigations of new ways of living together that are driven by our mutual dreams and desires, but such vitality is all too often absent in the more formalized democratic institutions and processes.

This is what’s puzzling me and what I will try to approach from three different (and very broad!) theoretical domains: play, democracy and design studies. In the following posts, I’ll introduce some of the main thoughts, ideas and concepts inspiring me and the project.

An open invitation

If there is any part of this you find interesting, if you see opportunities in playing along or if you think I’m gravely mistaken, please get in touch. Whichever slightly interesting thing I have ever managed to do, I was only able to do so because I’ve been fortunate enough to work with people smarter than me. For it is indeed as Freire wrote:

“For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other”

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Each other.

Let’s play well together.


2 responses to “Welcome to my PhD project”

  1. Mathias. Delighted to see you pursuing this inquiry. I am noticing your interest in the ‘living together’ aspect. For myself this engages with notions of conviviality, living together, especially living well together. It also intersects with my own (adult) play@work interests. I have some articles on these subjects on my Linkedin site – if you’d care to peruse

    Play is where/when I get to work on my Self – as ‘work’ it’s essentially soul-work. Convivially, it’s ‘inter-work’, between our outer work and inner work. It’s a demos-place.

    Best wishes for a joy-filled project.

  2. […] I recently wrote the first post about my upcoming PhD project, “Designing for Playful Democratic Participation”, which I’m extremely excited about. I ended the post with one of my Freire quotes and an invitation to play along: […]

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