It’s ok to fail. Creating playful learning spaces in libraries

In our hectic world of endless to-do lists, it can feel as if everything needs to be done now, ticked off, and completed. There’s often little space for experimentation and practice, no time to dwell or mess around discovering how things work by getting them wrong and trying again. 

Failure is scary. It can feel like everyone else is sailing through and achieving, and the idea of failing at something can be scary as we just don’t have the time. We seem to have learned that it’s all about success and getting it right.

But failure is an important part of learning

Learning something new takes time, it takes practice. Even though it can feel uncomfortable, we can often learn more from getting something wrong than by getting it right the first time. And there’s a growing body of evidence that points to the importance of failure in learning. 

This space to fail is particularly important when it comes to digital skills (digital tools and technology), where fear of doing something wrong or ‘breaking’ something can prove a real barrier to learning. 

We’re interested in ideas around playfulness – the valuable nuggets of information that you can discover when you try things out and spend a bit of time practising. 

It can seem counterintuitive to slow down and allow space for mistakes, but it can pay off. In the article Building in room to fail: Learning through play in an undergraduate course, in the brilliant Journal of Play in Adulthood, Hannah Gascho Rempel of Oregon State University sets out the theory behind what she terms “graceful failure”. This rather lovely term takes the sting out of the idea of failing and places the act of failing as a positive learning experience.

In fact, researchers have found that failure is ‘the essential prerequisite for success.’ They discovered that the people who learned from their mistakes and focused on what needed to be improved were most likely to ultimately be successful. 

So if this is the case, where can we make the space for failure? 

Libraries can provide spaces for people of all ages to try, and to fail.

People know that libraries are places of learning, whether lifelong learning of public libraries or supporting formal learning of the university or health library, so they can be the ideal place to facilitate and foster this kind of playful inquiry. 

Makerspaces can build the essential skills of perseverance or, what Angela Duckworth, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania terms “grit”. Through the  “unstructured time and materials they offer for kids to work on their own projects, solve problems together, and try things out over and over again, makerspaces can be an exciting laboratory.”

Gaming industry pioneer Ian Livingstone and Shahneila Saeed, head of education at Ukie, are tireless campaigners for creativity and play in learning for all ages. In their book, Hacking the Curriculum, they state “(w)hile we may play differently as adults, doing so has clear benefits. Play enables us to see things from a different angle and add a fresh perspective on things. It’s a way of developing new ideas”.  

And, in an interview with TES, Livingston states “Imagination is the key for the ‘maker’ generation. Imagination helps us dream what might be possible, and maths helps us understand what is possible.” And libraries can be ideal spaces for this to happen.  

It’s not just makerspaces that can encourage playful and unhurried learning.

Interactive and engaging online learning spaces can also provide a safe environment where it’s not only ok, but encouraged to try different learning paths at your own pace. 

What can you do to create environments that allow for and even encourage ‘graceful failure’? 

  • Facilitate both online and in-person sessions that encourage co-learning, experimentation and finding solutions to problems.
  • Allow access to digital resources and tools for new users as well as experienced ones. This doesn’t mean unsupervised or unsupported, abandoning users to their own devices. But it does mean actively removing barriers and preventing gatekeeping.  
  • Design and provide physical and digital spaces that encourage creative and collaborative learning and building new skills. 
  • Let people utilise their own experience and interests to build and create.
  • No pressure! Celebrate the process and accept the outcome, whatever it is. If people are to let go of the idea of ‘getting the right answer’ they need to do it without fear of judgement.

These are just a few suggestions of where and how you might create a playful learning environment in your library. Practise what you preach and be inventive with your planning. You could even create a forum for your own staff and/or patrons, where participants are free to creatively engage with ideas on building a creative program together.

But staff need to feel supported to deliver these innovative programs. There are resources out there to help them, and we’ve picked out a few below: 


If you work in a public library, and don’t know where to start your digital learning journey, you could try CILIP’s digital leadership course. We collaborated with CILIP on this self-paced course to help public library staff to build their digital leadership confidence and skills. 

If you’re thinking about setting up a makerspace, see our Makerspace Starter Guide for Libraries.

The Journal of Play in Adulthood, that we mentioned above, is a treasure trove of playful thinking and studies on play that support ideas around the importance of play.  

Raspberry Pi’s Hello World magazine is a free publication for educators, full of ideas for technology projects.

Exploratorium’s The Tinkering Studio is a website dedicated to the joy of tinkering and ‘playful invention, investigation, and collaboration’.

Talk to us about your next project

We’re always happy to have a chat.