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Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

A New New Year’s Resolution: Play More

Play turns recreation into re-creation and invention.

It's that time of year again when we all resolve to make some changes that will have a positive impact on our lives. What could be more life-enhancing than nurturing our own creativity? The question is how. We offer a simple answer. Resolve to make (more) room in your life for play.

What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of play? Probably the curiosity-driven, exploratory, "let's pretend" behavior of little kids. Lewis Carroll captured some of its essence in the nonsense term "galumphing": the awkward, exaggerated gait of the "beamish boy" in his poem, The Jabberwocky. Anthropologist Stephen Miller has applied Carroll's word to play in general, since most play is synonymous with frivolous recreation and irresponsible fun, with fooling around, shirking duties, and subverting that sober endeavor known as work.

In our society, we generally recognize the value of play in training childhood skills, but because we also contrast play with work, our society hardly ever encourages adults to play by and for themselves. And, for most of us, therein lies the rub: It's hard to make time for something if you or those around you are not quite convinced that it has redeeming value and purpose.

Rest assured, play does have redeeming value and purpose. It functions as an imaginative thinking tool, a strategy for responding to challenges in the workaday world.

In our book Sparks of Genius , we found that creative individuals in the arts and in the sciences often play at and with their work. They cultivate playfulness in order to stimulate inventiveness, for play can generate novel ways of thinking, making, and behaving — some of which may result in workable innovations.

Consider these examples:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart played with words. Musicologist Emanuael Winternitz has pointed out that Mozart indulged with abandon in puns, anagrams, nonsense rhymes, inversions, and just about any other verbal transposition one can think of. Instead of using his own name, he regularly signed his letters Trazom (an inversion) or Romatz (an anagram). Perusal of his music shows that he used a similar set of games for inventing his musical themes. Indeed, musical anagrams appear frequently in his compositions. In one of his string quartets, for example, the same three notes (A-G-F#) are repeated over and over again. Boring, right? Yet Mozart created a fascinating pattern out of the repetition by spreading it over four beats, thus revealing three different musical anagrams (F#AGF# - GF#AG - AGF#A). Mozart also made frequent use of cancrizans, the musical term for playing a musical sequence in reverse — like the inversion of his name as Trazom. Winternitz concludes — and we do as well — that Mozart's verbal play was useful practice for his musical inventiveness.

The sculptor Alexander Calder not only made toys, he actually played with them. He made his first big splash in the Parisian art world with a working model of a circus made from bits and pieces of wood, cork, wire, paper, and anything else that came to hand. Trapeze artists flew through the air, knife throwers tossed knives, and acrobats cavorted in the ring as Calder got down on his hands and knees and played circus in front of friends, artists, and literati. Calder's circus has been called a "laboratory" for his subsequent work. Certainly it nurtured the skills and ideas he needed to develop the larger, self-moving pieces called mobiles that revolutionized notions of what sculpture can be. But play in and of itself seems always to have been uppermost in his mind. Calder never called himself an artist nor what he produced "art" — such labeling was too serious for him. Rather, he created mobiles, and stabiles, too, for the fun of creating them and banked on the enjoyment others might take in them as well. Next time you see a Calder sculpture, think of it as a huge toy. He'd like that.

Alexander Fleming, the bacteriologist who discovered penicillin, also played in a laboratory, in his case a scientific one. When he wasn't working with bacterial cultures, he was playing with them by painting with them. In fact, he often left petri dishes lying about just to see what airborne microbes might show up, thus exercising what Max Delbruck, one of the founders of molecular biology, has called "the principle of limited sloppiness." Fleming collected microorganisms for the colors they added to his "palette." "I play with microbes," he was fond of telling people. But as he himself acknowledged, his play was also a strategy for scientific discovery. In the process of courting and cultivating microbial paint, he developed a tremendous knowledge of microbial interactions, because not all microbes will grow together on the same media, at the same temperature, or in each other's vicinity. When a beautiful blue-green mold appeared on his petri dishes he was captivated by its color — and by its elimination of infectious bacteria on the agar plate. Play led directly to the discovery of penicillin

What are we to make of these examples and many others? First, play is one of the keys to creativity. Second, work and play are not necessarily antithetical. To the contrary, work and play can be complementary strategies for invention and discovery in a multitude of disciplines. What Mozart, Calder, and Fleming had in common is the sheer joy of playing with their work. Third, recreation leads to rest, relaxation and, through an enlarged understanding of how and why ideas, things, and processes work, to novel forms of re-creation.

So this new year join us in resolving to play more.


Miller, Stephen. 1973. "Ends, Means, and Galumphing: Some Leitmotifs of Play." American Anthropologist 75: 87-98.

Winternitz, Emanuel. 1958. "Gnagflow Trazom: An Essay on Mozart's Script, Pastimes, and Nonsense Letters." Journal of the American Musicological Society 9: 200-216.