Play. Playtime. Playing.
There are all terms synonymous with children or being child-like.
But, somehow, as we grow older, we seem to lose our passion for play. Or perhaps we’ve just forgotten how.

Stop. Rewind and think back to when you played. Really played.
When the days were long and the possibilities endless.
When you only scampered home when hunger beckoned and every new toy was a marvel.

But somewhere along the lines, play began to change.
Don’t get me wrong. As adults we do play.
But our games are played with prejudice and assumption. No longer do we test, explore, dismantle and rebuild. Instead we look at things quickly, judge them and place in a box of other things that we’ve come across that are similar, and then often discard.

Think about how kids react to a new toy. The first thing they ask is “What is it? And the second thing is “what can I do with it? It’s the reason why kids seem to spend more time playing with the box the toy came in than the toy itself. A box can be a spaceship, a house or a suit of armor. A tickle-me-Elmo is really just one thing. You can see the “wheels spinning” when a child encounters a new toy: they touch, shake, listen, smell and sometimes even taste it. Children at play are a bit like scientists at work.

As adults, we can be judged as failures, even at play. Our acute sense of pride and fear often silences unconventional thinking. As children, we were not aware of such judgement, yet as adults, we’re paralysed by it.

Tim Brown, the CEO of Ideo explains that the main difference between kids and adult play is that kids are never embarrassed or ashamed of their ideas. If anything we reward and applaud them. But as adults we lack the security and freedom to play and experiment without judgement. So we end up self editing and critiquing.

According to Melvin Konner, Professor of Anthropology and Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology at Emory University, “The smartest mammals are the most playful, so these traits have apparently evolved together.” Playing has multiple functions—exercise, learning, sharpening skills—and the positive emotions it invokes may be an adaptation that encourages us to try new things and learn with more flexibility. In fact, it may be the primary means nature has found to develop our brains.”

The good news is that a structured playful environment can be achieved without breaking the bank or a corporate re-structure.

As this blog post has found you, its safe to assume that like me, you work in the communications industry, so you may recognize some of the kick-starters below.

But before we launch into it, a gentle reminder that to put these words into action you will need a touch of bravery and be prepared to lead by example. Let’s get started with a few basic considerations:

1. Explore
2. Build
3. Experience
4. Structure
5. Environment

1. Explore
This is all about quantity.
Forget about meeting the brief, budgets and schedules. Just think of as many solutions as possible. Expand, test and explore them.
To ensure that this has structure, put time frames around how long you have to brainstorm and make sure all the ideas are simple and quick. Don’t over-think it!
There might just be a nugget buried somewhere in an otherwise not do-able idea.

2. Build
This follows the exploratory phase, when you start to organize and prioritise your thinking and ideas.
In some instances, its as simple as moving post-it-notes around and grouping them into similar territories, objectives and concepts. That said, in some instances, making a real, tangible prototype you can see and touch will also help bring ideas to life. And you don’t need to spend hours on this, just the simple stuff you had in Kinder will do, like paper, scissors, play-dough, glue etc. Mix it up!

3. Experience
Now the term “role-play” tends to send most adults into a panicked shaking mess, but hear me out. Role playing is not just for kids or contestants on lame improv shows.
Role-playing is all about experiencing something first hand and is particularly good for testing out in the service industry. It helps identify needs, gaps and real experiences in a more authentic way.
I remember being trained at Starbucks (yes – groan). They had built a fake shop-front and service area where we got to practice our customer service and coffee making skills in uniform. It made the training far more useful than just memorising how to make a tall, non-fat latte.
So go on, get out the costumes and embrace a new identity.

4. Structure
Contrary to what some might think, play is not anarchy. Its very much governed by structure and rules.

Here are a few:

– The concept of allowing time for play and play itself needs to be agreed to and adhered to from the very top of your company food chain down to the shleppers. It needs to be embedded in your culture.
– Agree as a team to listen, support and encourage each other. Make up rules of play if it helps. Kids do it all the time.
– Set defined times for play and work. You need to transition between the two to be effective and productive.

5. Environment
We’ve all seen photos of the Google headquarters and wished we got to hang somewhere as cool. Who doesn’t want a fireman’s pole in their office, right? But it doesn’t need to be unobtainable and expensive, as it’s more important to develop and nurture a supportive creative environment. Remember, trust breeds the security to play and take risks. When David Kelly, one of the founders of Ideo started the business, he wanted everyone to be his best friend as he believed that friendship was a short-cut to play. Now he has over 500 of them.

Now more than ever, In a world where we face new and complex challenges daily, play is not a luxury but rather a necessity. According to Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, “Play is the answer to how anything new comes about.” A playful mind thrives on ambiguity, complexity, and improvisation—the very things needed to innovate and come up with creative solutions to the massive global challenges in economics, the environment, education, and more.”

After all, necessity is the mother of invention and change.

As work is where we spend much of our time, it’s especially important for us to play during work. Without some recreation, our work suffers. After all, success at work doesn’t depend on the amount of time you work – it depends upon the quality of work. And the quality of work is dependent on your well-being. And if you weren’t convinced, according to Brian Sutton-Smith, “The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression.”

So let’s stop, rewind and play.

4 thoughts on “Play – it’s not just for kids

  1. Hello Lee, nice article. Play is an essential ingredient in the creative process. Through play we have the opportunity to experiment, to try new ideas, to fail without the pressure of needing to succeed. In this space, serendipitous “happy accidents” can occur which can lead to life-changing innovative breakthroughs.

    If you look past the “salesy” appearance of this book http://www.screwworkletsplay.com/2011/01/join-the-2011-play-revolution/ – it contains some fantastic practical excercises which explain how play can be used to help develop creative ideas.

    Cheers,
    Kieran

  2. Hello Lee, nice article. Play is an essential ingredient in the creative process. Through play we have the opportunity to experiment, to try new ideas, to fail without the pressure of needing to succeed. In this space, serendipitous “happy accidents” can occur which can lead to life-changing innovative breakthroughs.

    If you look past the “salesy” appearance of this book http://www.screwworkletsplay.com/2011/01/join-the-2011-play-revolution/ – it contains some fantastic practical excercises which explain how play can be used to help develop creative ideas.

    Cheers,
    Kieran

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