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Is there a space for Play at Work? Why do we need to have Play in our lives, as adults? Bringing together some of the best talks and writing on work, play and creativity.
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.”
– As You Like It, Shakespeare
At some stage of our lives we have all been players, whether or not we were in an acting company! We have been busy in the grounds, or the backyards; we have been messy with coloured fingers and loose sheets, made-up toys, or even cardboard boxes.
We have all been at play.
But we’re adults now. We have projects, deadlines, careers. We have meetings, schedules and insurance policies. We have vacation plans, mortgages, children and ambitions.
What we don’t have is the time to play.
Memories of playing ‘House-House’, ‘Doctor-Doctor’, of times on the swing set and the sandbox are long gone. And, enquiring minds want to know, what purpose did they serve anyway?
Here’s an answer from the National Institute of Play (yes, there is such an organisation). Play can be categorised under seven heads. The first four serve to introduce the child to the world: in the shape of its mother, its own body, objects, and a larger group.
But then, there are higher forms of play viz the Imaginative, Narrative, and Transformative. These foster the imagination, language, and innovation. Albert Einstein often indulged in the transformative form of play. His theory of relativity developed when he tried to make sense of a dream where he had seen cows being electrocuted! (Read this hilarious article for more dream inventions: )
So, play is a complex notion. And what we see here is that it has tangible links to creativity, and to work. How does play link to work, you might ask? One scientific explanation is that play is linked to neurogenesis – making more neurons in our brain, more of that good grey stuff in our noggins! It means that along with regular exercise, good diet, and rest, play nurtures our brain.
Does this mean, up with the spades and buckets and off to the sandbox? Not exactly!
We do have jobs to keep, and projects to complete. Work is serious business. But, it is crucial to understand that play is not antithetical to work. In fact, as many leading artists, entrepreneurs and experts know, play and work go together. Play aids creativity, and innovation – a skill that employers everywhere value highly. Playfulness implies a lack of fear, and an innate security, which is the foundation stone for mastery. Creativity is not just about putting pen to paper, brush to canvas, or eye to lens. It is equally about cost-effective solutions, maximising output and long term vision.
No matter which rung of the organisational ladder you find yourself hanging on to, there is the possibility of being creative. And being at play. The venerable John Cleese talks about creating a ‘tortoise enclosure’, “an oasis for the mind to come [out] and play.” This can happen by creating boundaries: of space and time, where we are open and receptive. Listen to the talk here.
Cleese stresses the ‘magic circle’ theory of play – bracketing ourselves from the frenzy around us for a defined duration of time. Why is this important? Firstly, there is the need for trust, the need to feel secure. Children who feel safe play more and better. The same goes for adults.
We fear the censure of peers and superiors. We want to be risk-proof, and safe. So, we become intolerant of innovation. This is inimical to our growth as individuals and workers.
Laura Seargent Richardson writes: “Play is the greatest natural resource in a creative economy.” Play, to her, is our greatest work as it is the biggest driver of innovation. And as creativity will be “the number one leadership competency of the future,” play must become an intrinsic principle of our work ethic.
While she writes from the American perspective, her article is highly relevant to citizens of the country which invented chess, ludo and algebra riddles!
The importance of play has been recognised to a certain extent at the corporate level, where companies like Google, Pixar and several others use symbols and architecture to create an environment of play. Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO an international design firm, knows a thing or two about creativity in the workplace and gave a fun and insightful talk at TED on the topic.
According to Tim, playfulness is important for three reasons:
1. Results in more creative solutions.
2. Helps us do our jobs better.
3. Makes us feel better when we do our jobs.
What more could one ask for?
But, he also emphasises that play is not anarchy. Play is always by the rules. These rules might be boundaries of time, space and method. Also, in a work environment, it is important to transition in and out of play. Tim calls this a two step process of ‘divergence and convergence.’
For example, for a poet, it means letting all structure of language fly out of the window as imagination reigns. For a project team, it might mean a brainstorming session. This is also what Tim calls “divergence”.
The second step, following the earlier example, is for the poet to let the critic enter, and have a say over the drafting process. And for the project’s creative team, to consider legalities, accounts, PR. This is “convergence.”
You can watch Tim’s entire talk here.
If you feel inspired to seriously play, a good place to start is at Julia Cameron’s blog. Julia is the author of the best-selling The Artist’s Way. On her blogs she shares tips and tricks about accessing play, encouragement to create the oasis and to mute the little doubting voice inside.
To sum up: play is not antithetical to work but an invaluable principle of it. Play has rules – it begins and ends at a certain time, it follows a code. There are several types of play and several approaches to it.
Play blurs the boundaries between the creative and the non-creative. Play is re-creation, a rewiring of the brain, a re-designing of the neural patterns. Play is also, as we have seen from above, an invaluable professional skill. A core competency for the future.
The benefits of play are increased creativity, a better brain, more effective and more enjoyable work. In organisational terms, communities that play together stay together. A woman who works and plays is a woman of wisdom!
So, what are you waiting for? All the world’s a stage! Go on and play!
Pic credit: Theodoritsis (Used under a CC license)
Skendha recently graduated with a Masters in Writing Practice and Study. The written word is
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