Increased focus on quantifiable performance and assessment in higher education is creating a learning culture characterised by fear of failing, avoidance of risk, and extrinsic goal-oriented behaviours. In this article, we explore possibilities of a more playful approach to teaching and learning in higher education through the metaphor of the ‘magic circle’. This approach stimulates intrinsic motivation and educational drive, creates safe spaces for academic experimentation and exploration, and promotes reflective risk-taking, ideation, and participation in education. We present a model of playful learning, drawing on notions of signature pedagogies, field literature, and two qualitative studies on learner conceptions of enjoyment and reasons for disengagement. We highlight the potential of this approach to invite a different mind-set and environment, providing a formative space in which failure is not only encouraged, but a necessary part of the learning paradigm.