Why You Should Try Working-Through-Play
How serious play can improve learning, creativity and stress management
Posted Jun 26, 2018
Within the field of child psychology, “learning through play” has long been recognized as an effective way for children to make sense of the world around them. Through play, children can develop social and cognitive skills, mature emotionally, and gain the self-confidence required to engage in new experiences and environments.
Yet learning-through-play is far from being child’s stuff. By applying similar principles of play to the work environment, or working-through-play, it’s possible to develop skills of creative thinking, problem solving, and innovation. The benefits of playfulness are extensively researched in the domains of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and child development, but unfortunately, less so in organizations.
Think of it this way: Let's say you’re developing new skills and absorbing new knowledge as part of your work. If you approach your work with more playfulness and if you integrate moments of play into your flow, you actually boost your capacity to learn and develop skills than if you just keep your nose to the grindstone.
Founder of the National Institute for Play, Dr Stuart Brown, has devoted decades to studying and advocating play to all kinds of audiences. While Brown refuses to define play, he does specify that:
Of all animal species, humans are the biggest players of all. We are built to play and built through play. When we play, we are engaged in the purest expression of our humanity, the truest expression of our individuality. (Brown, 2009)
Mounting research in the fields of psychology and sociology have begun to apply this notion of play to adults in the workplace. Ongoing psychological research demonstrates that play at work enhances job satisfaction (Abramis, 1990), increases task involvement and creativity (Hunter, Jemielniak, & Postula, 2010), and contributes to one’s ability to deal with stress (Sørenson & Spoelestra, 2011).
It was Kolb and Kolb who coined the term “ludic learning space” (Kolb & Kolb, 2010) for a play-based space where learning can occur. These spaces, as they specified, are ones which are designed to encourage participants to play, and as they play, they also can learn. In a narrow field of research, Kolb and Kolb applied this research to adults.
To apply this to a business framework, branding maven Marty Neumeier articulated it thus:
[Ludic learning] is learning through playing, learning playfully. The joy zone is really what we call the area of flow, when you are in flow. .... You are loving what you are doing so much, not that you are conscious that you are loving it, you could have a frown on your face the whole time you are doing it because you are trying to crack a problem or make something. (Neumeier, 2018)
Developing a Sense of Serious Play
Play is often defined as having no serious intent, as being activity without purpose. By “serious play” I mean that it’s playful activity that you take seriously as part of your work flow as well as part of your endeavor to advance your best ideas, build your brand, and expand your visibility.
While the full exploration of play has been all but absent in entrepreneurship literature (Ferreira et al., 2015), this sense of flow–what Neumeier calls the joy zone, is familiar to everybody in one way or another. You are so engaged that “the hands just fly off the clock, you don’t even know what time it is,” he says, because you are doing something in which the purpose interests you, the outcome interests you, and it’s just hard enough to be interesting but not too hard to make it frustrating.
That flow is what we mean when we talk about serious play.
There are times when you can be all-out serious, and there are times when you can be all-out playful, and there are times when you can approach your serious work with a playful mindset.
Serious work performed with a playful mindset & process = serious play
Google, along with other prominent organizations, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Zappos, has embraced the idea that play at work can have positive attitudinal, social, and behavioral consequences (Schmidt & Rosenberg, 2014).
Innovators who are engaged frequently in solving problems with novel, useful, beautiful ideas can spend hours engaged in highly serious pursuits and can also be engaged for hours in highly playful activities.
Play developing exercises
Play with your flow mojo
We are adamant at Tracking Wonder about helping individuals and teams not just work well but also break better. And we human beings break better when we open ourselves up to novel experiences during the work day.
From our research, we recommend that on average such a break last from 40 seconds to 20 minutes. To qualify as breaking better with, say, one of our Wonder Interventions means that the activity is not in front of a screen. Your attention is either turned toward the sensory world, another person, or toward your own cool thoughts and ideas.
If you tend, like I do, to “work hard” in long stretches, set a timer to go off after 90 minutes or two hours to signal you to pause and play. Play for you might mean you step away from your work space and do something quiet like draw in a notebook or record your observations and thoughts in a notebook or go for a walk to observe fun patterns, or if you’re prone to more active play do something more physical like dance to a music video.
Integrate Your Process
One of Tracking Wonder’s core beliefs is in the importance of experimentation, testing things out, and playing. When we work with clients to develop their brand stories, this can involve drawing, role-playing, creative problem-solving, and improv–all designed to open our imaginations, awaken our brain’s full range of possibilities, and foster deeper collaboration.
So if you’re staring at your website and know it needs updating or if you’re fretting about your marketing campaign, try this: Define and write down the problem. Analyze it and think it until your head hurts. Then step away and play.
When you least expect it–in the shower, on a walk, in the car, while futzing with Legos or clay, in a conversation–a solution for the next step forward just might visit. Capture it and move.
Take Play Into Your Own Hands
Depending upon your flexibility during the workday, integrate at least two restful breaks into your flow.
Step away from any screen. Sit outdoors and simply follow your own curiosity.
This act of freeing your mind–quite literally, by changing your physical surroundings can allow your mind the freedom to play for a moment and then come back to the task in hand.
Seriously Consider the Value of Play
Whether you’re choosing to open a meeting with a playful story or activity to loosen your team, or trying to find ways to delight your workmates as well as your clients, play can keep people awake, engaged, and open-minded.
While the field of study around the value of play is a limited one, what's clear is that the idea is far from new. Prominent writers and thinkers from Baudelaire to Newton have explored how to access the childish essence of wonder and creativity. It was Newton who said:
I don't know what I may seem to the world. But as to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself now and then in finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than the ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
By engaging with the act of play, of what we refer to at Tracking Wonder as deliberate daydreaming, you have the potential to tap into a greater sense of creativity and connectivity. Perhaps play is the key to granting access to our less inhibited selves, and engaging in what Baudelaire believed to be true genius– "childhood retrieved at will".
Kolb, A.Y., Kolb, D.A. (2010) "Learning to play, playing to learn: A case study of a ludic learning space", Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 23 Issue: 1, pp.26-50, https://doi.org/10.1108/09534811011017199
Brown, S. (2009) Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul.
Neumeier, M. (2018) Tracking Wonder: Branding & Creativity with a Higher Purpose [podcast]. 12 June Available from: https://trackingwonder.com/podcast/branding-creativity-marty-neumeier/
Petelczyc, C.A., Capezio, A., Wang L., Restubog, S.L.S, and Aquino, K. (2017) Play at Work: An Integrative Review and Agenda for Future Research. Journal of Management. Vol 44, Issue 1, pp. 161 - 190. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206317731519
Dobson, S., McKendrick, J. (2018) Intrapreneurial spaces to entrepreneurial cities: Making sense of play and playfulness. The International Journal of Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Vol 19, Issue 2, pp. 75 - 80. https://doi.org/10.1177/1465750318770974