Seriously Playful, Playfully Serious

Seriously Playful, Playfully Serious

“Work and play are words used for the same thing under differing conditions”

                                                                        Mark Twain

For decades we have been aware of the importance of play in the development of children; play teaches us how to share, to self-direct, to empathise; through play we learn to socialise, to explore; to use our imagination.  Increasingly, evidence is also pointing to the benefits that play has on adults especially in fostering creativity and enhancing relationships and performance in the workplace.

Most of us have grown up believing that there is a distinction between work and play. Work is serious and important and play is frivolous and childish. And yet research is pointing to play being an effective, even necessary, space from within to create and problem solve.

In their article ‘Ain’t Misbehaving, Taking Play Seriously in Organisations’, Statler, Roos and Victor explain that play has an important, even crucial role in the success of organisations; in particular those that are striving for change.

Firstly, play enhances our cognitive and emotional capacity. Processes that help us interact with our surroundings and one another are developed through play. For instance, taking in new information and assimilating it to our existing concepts, or accommodating what we already know as we learn more about particular subjects; in short, play helps us become complex adult thinkers.

Further, our capacity to imagine is developed through play. When we play dress up or play cops and robbers, we not only mimic adult behaviours that we see around us; we also imagine what it might be like to be in certain situations, what it feels like to be somebody else, from this space we develop empathy and ‘ethical judgment’. 

According to psychologist and play specialist Dr Peter Gray from Boston College, play can put the mind into a state that ‘…is uniquely suited for high-level reasoning, insightful problem solving, and all sorts of creative endeavours’

He talks about the general feeling of freedom, of feeling ‘this is exactly what I want to be doing right now’; a state that may or may not involve laughing and fun but that is always conducive to a ‘mutually voluntary’ participation; a relationship of high level of dynamic engagement and willingness between participants that are there because they want to be.

While it is mostly children that can stay in this 100% play state, even the degrees of playfulness that adults can bring to their intended work purposes can add a level of freedom that can positively affect engagement and productivity.

The ultimate freedom, as Gray points out, is being able to stop playing. And research suggests that having this level of self-direction and freedom when tackling difficult work tasks can often create a feeling of play, leading to greater focus and productivity.

‘…the relationship between work and play cannot be considered mutually exclusive, and that any coherent theory of organisational life must account both for work and play,’ state Statler et al.

“To stimulate creativity one must develop a childlike inclination to play and the childlike desire for recognition”                                                                                    Albert Einstein

When it comes to the positive effect of play on creativity IDEO’s Tim Brown is a strong advocate. He explains that from his experience there are three major ways in which play and creativity or generating ideas are linked.

First, he reminds us that children spend 50% of their play time in construction, or play building and developmentally this is a form of learning. This’ learning with our hands’ is one of the important contributions that play makes to creativity.

The second characteristic is that play is all about exploration, trying out new ideas and experimenting which includes being free to make mistakes without being concerned about being wrong.

Sir Ken Robinson, in his famous TED talk ‘Schools Kill Creativity’ tells a story about a young girl in a classroom who had not been very interested in school work but she was very engaged when they did some drawing. The teacher saw the girl’s increased interest and asked her:

‘What are you drawing?’

‘I’m drawing a picture of God,’ the little girl said.

‘Nobody knows what God looks like,’ she teacher told her.

‘They will in a minute!’ responded the child.

The young child has not concept of being wrong. Form within this kind of freedom to try anything new ideas and innovate can sprout more readily.

Thirdly, acting out different roles during play is a great spark for the imagination, it’s how children learn to empathise and learn

This has certain implications for organisations that are prioritising engendering creativity and innovation among their workers and who want to increase productivity and satisfaction.  Likewise, organisations that are managing change can make use of the usefulness of play activities in the development and adaptation of cultural identities.

At Act Out we work on the premise that a key ingredient in organisational development and successfully adapting to the volatility that organisations face lies in blurring the boundaries that have been constructed between work and play.