Think back to the time when we were children when we just did things because we could – when we indulged in PLAY.
We flew kites or drew with coloured pencils on a piece of paper. We chased our friends, we laughed, we shouted, we play-fought, we built sandcastles, played with puppets, we had imaginary friends, and we never wanted it to stop. It was a time when our energy levels and creativity were in abundance.
Take a moment to try and remember a time after playing and having fun that you didn’t feel great. After a bout of play, we felt energised and excited and after a while, we felt tired for all the right reasons – expending energy that contributed to our well-being.
When we were younger, besides it being fun, the act of play contributed to our development. Play fighting as a child taught us boundaries, and imaginative play developed our use of imagination which is key for visualisation and brainstorming. Active play promoted movement and cardio development and all of it promoted a feeling of fun, freedom and an abundance of silliness.
When last did you PLAY?
By PLAY, I mean to just do something with no desired outcome and just because you could – as we did when we were children.
“In this day and age, where do I have the time to play?” I can hear you ask. “I’ve got my start-up to move forward, my team to lead, targets to meet, children to cart around from place to place, and I lie awake at night, thinking, worrying, fretting, and calculating, with all things related to my professional and personal life!”
However, now more than ever we need to take the time out to play.
As we grow older, and we move into our teens – suddenly it isn’t cool to play. We become more conscious of how we think we should act so that we don’t look silly. We become more conscious of how our peers are acting and what we should be doing to fit in as opposed to standing out, and doing what is good for us and contributing to our personal development.
As we move into the “working,” world, the responsibility of life takes over. We become more serious: we must be productive, and we must get results. We play much less and constantly feel tired for all the wrong reasons. We spend more time on our screens, we stop or do fewer fun things because we can’t find the time to, or we’re too drained from running around doing the things that we “should” be doing.
The more we do, and the less we make time to play, the more our stress levels increase and the more our energy levels start to fade away. The older we grow the more we forget about the things that we just did for fun, and the further we move away from something the more difficult it is to reconnect.
In my coaching program, “Createfulness – Play- Create- Lead,” when I start to discuss the PLAY aspect, at times I can see the attendees squirming in their seats with discomfort because they don’t understand the term PLAY and they think they’re going to have to get up, be the focus of attention, and act like a goofball or a clown.
What is PLAY?
Stuart Brown the author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, describes “play” as something that is absorbing, apparently purposeless, provides enjoyment, suspends self-consciousness, is self-motivating and promotes the want to do it again. Most importantly he mentions that it is not the activity but the attitude that we bring to it.
To promote that attitude, we must be able to let down our guard, be less serious, and not care too much about the outcome while seeking out opportunities for humour and light-hearted connections.
Even though some forms of play do require physical activities, if it is also a state of mind or an attitude – imagine if we just change our attitude to being more playful as described by Stuart Brown. Imagine the benefits?
How can we PLAY as adults?
- Movement play – running, dancing, skipping, cycling, and swimming, playing sports – all promote mobility and cardio.
- Object play – putty, clay, Lego, Meccano, DIY, building something – promotes creativity.
- Imaginative play – making up stories, creative writing, role-playing, and visualisation– can lead to new business ideas and ways forward and can be used for the likes of conflict resolution, sales training, and brainstorming sessions.
- Social play – with friends, touch rugby, cards, games, group hiking trips.
- Celebratory and Ritual play – birthday parties, wedding receptions, festivals, dancing.
- Fun hobbies – painting, carpentry, model building, art classes.
- Reading, time alone, quietness, watching movies, and walking – promotes reflection.
“Play is the highest form of research.”
~ Albert Einstein ~
Why do we need to play?
“Play helps to regain the mind of a child and better deal with the challenges we all face.”
~ Dr White, Patch Adams ~
- It’s purposeless – we do it for our own sake – time for me and my tribe.
- There’s an inherent attraction – it’s fun.
- We lose a sense of time when we play.
- Our sense of self diminishes – we become more present which promotes mindfulness.
- We improvise when we’re playing – it isn’t rigid.
- We want to continue with it, so we make up ways to add to it.
- It contributes to us feeling relaxed, light-hearted, jovial – positive emotion – well-being.
- We become inquisitive.
- We become inspired, open to ideas, and in a state of easy problem solving – right brain – fantastic before a brainstorming session.
- It contributes to creativity – our mind opens and more connections.
- It’s unstructured and allows for organic growth.
- It overrides the need for hostility.
- It invokes feeling and emotion- we laugh, we shout, we hug. (Think of a party or a festival)
- It is the essence of freedom.
- It allows us to express our joy and connect most deeply with the best in ourselves and in others.
- It creates a feeling of joy.
- We drop our guard.
- Play is nature’s tool for creating new neural networks and reconciling cognitive difficulties. Finding new patterns, finding the unusual among the common, sparking curiosity and alert observation. As John Cohn, the mad scientist says, it fosters “being”.
One of the benefits of playing is that it contributes to our sense of well-being – it relaxes us and releases the “feel-good,” hormones – endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin, and it promotes relaxing and taking it “easy.”
The second reason playing is important is that it creates a state of mind for creative inspiration.
When we are relaxed and our conscious mind relaxes, it allows our subconscious to release and remind us of those relatable thoughts, conversations, and things we’ve seen, heard, read, and watched. We create connections and experience those “Aha,” and light bulb moments, which, if we take notice of them, can assist with moving us and our ventures forward.
Have you ever experienced sitting in an exam struggling with a question, or someone asking you a question, and try as you might, you can’t think of the answer? Yet sometime later while out walking, jogging, watching TV, showering, brushing your teeth, reading, just about to fall asleep or just before waking up, the answer comes to mind? That is the moment when your conscious mind is relaxed, which the act of play promotes.
So as adults how do we incorporate play into our lives -especially into our professional lives – where we are expected to be serious and work?
The Rules of Play
To start off with here are a set of guidelines.
- All play needs rules – like any game, what we can and what we can’t do must be stipulated.
- The environment both physically and mentally, must be safe.
- We need to suspend judgement of both ourselves and others.
- Where possible – no hierarchy should exist – especially in the working environment.
In a recent leadership skills development program that I was facilitating for a leadership group in Belville, in Cape Town, the group consisted of 20 people from all over the country so everyone knew each other. As you can imagine – the people who knew each other stood together in small groups chatting, creating a room of 3-4 little gatherings of people.
Each attendee was given their own manual with instructions not to read it yet. I then asked them to pair off with someone they didn’t know and sit next to them.
The room was relatively quiet, with people quietly introducing themselves to their newfound partners. I then asked each one to draw a portrait of the other – but the catch was that each person had only 30 seconds to draw the other. Within 1 minute, with both portraits completed, the room exploded into life – people were laughing at their creations, comparing their speedy artworks, apologising, and most importantly connecting with each other. The ice was broken by a simple act of play. From that moment onwards everyone was engaging with each other and with the content of the program, they became more comfortable and creative with their contribution.
“People rarely succeed at anything, unless they’re having fun with it.”
Southwest Airlines – mission statement
In her book, The Power of Fun, Catherine Price talks about the importance of having fun, its benefits, and the magnets needed for fun which are.
Activities – ice breakers in a meeting or outdoor activities are fantastic fun magnets.
People – our tribes, or banter-filled connections, promote moments of ease, laughter, and creativity. The need for human connection has been scientifically proven and can’t be underestimated – something we’re slowly moving away from as the growth of AI, social media and online entertainment increases.
Settings – In her opening chapter, Ingrid Fetell Lee, the author of Joyful, writes how in Tirana, the capital of Albania some painters painted a historic building with Tangerine orange paint. This wasn’t an act of defiance, sabotage, or tagging. Tirana at the time was consumed with corruption and controlled by organised crime, and the painting was instructed by the mayor who wanted to make changes in the city. Onlookers stood by laughing, horrified, and shaking their heads as the building changed colour.
A short while after this transformation, more buildings started to get colourful licks of paint – red, violet, and yellow. And with the colourful changes made to the faces of the buildings, the people of the city started to change too. The locals started paying their taxes, shopkeepers removed their metal gates from the shop windows, the pavements started to fill up with café tables and chairs, and the garbage started to get collected again. The city became alive, and joyful. The people of Tirana started to play.
And it all started with the colourful painting of buildings.
Our environment, homes, office spaces, and shopping malls, play an important part in our existence and can influence our feeling of playfulness and our willingness to play.
Organisations like Google and Amazon have play areas, rides, nap pods, and colourfully painted office spaces, all of which have been proven to positively affect mood, creativity, and productivity.
In a recent program I facilitated in Cape Town, I organised a photographic bingo exercise in Bo-Kaap, an area where many of the houses are painted in bright pinks, greens, blues, purple, oranges, and reds. Rows of colourfully painted houses line the streets. My group had to walk the streets looking for the images on their cards which I’d photographed in the area. A playful activity that got the participants out and about from the office, connecting with their peers in a colourful environment. Even though there was lots of fun and laughter, the interesting observation I made was of the throng of international tourists taking photographs of the houses and of each other in front of the colourful walls. I’m almost certain that the one thing probably different from their own neighbourhoods was the inclusion of colour.
Our settings don’t have to be changed with a lick of paint, they can be altered by a festival of balloons, or bunches of flowers – colourful, fun, and light-hearted.
The act of PLAY doesn’t have to be an over-the-top, loud event, with lots of people. It just needs to be something where people get to do something where fun, ease (and the other benefits – listed above) come to the fore.
Live and online facilitated programs include icebreakers and games to introduce an element of play, shift the mood and promote contribution.
But why can’t play be incorporated into everyday office life? Can you imagine the effect after receiving something like a treasure hunt instruction in your inbox, that will take you away from your desk for 20 minutes, while you connect with your office peers while seeking out a small treasure?
Or a game show quiz, at the beginning of a meeting- where people can contribute in a non-judgemental light-hearted way, to set the tone for the time together in the boardroom?
How play connects to creativity
In 1891 there was a German physicist, Hermann von Helmholtz who spoke about a thought process that he used when he was trying to solve a problem or make a connection or create something new.
He said that this process included four stages.
- The Preparation stage – the stage where he studied, researched, explored, and acquired as much knowledge related to the topic. He would try and do it as uninterrupted as possible – with no specific timeframe.
- The Incubation Stage – he felt that when he had prepared enough, he would consciously disconnect from it entirely. He would do something else like spend time with work colleagues or work on something else entirely. He believed that while he was doing this, all the information he’d acquired during the preparation stage would incubate.
- The Illumination Stage – he then said that it was the moments when he was completely relaxed – walking in the fields and forests – that the light bulb moments, the answers, the illumination came to him.
- The Verification Stage – he would take these ideas, apply them, put them into practice, and see if they worked.
This process is backed up by the likes of Ludwig van Beethoven who used to walk for 5 hours every afternoon after having composed the full morning. Friedrich Nietzsche was an outstanding walker who spent up to 8 hours a day in this activity in some periods of his life, and said that: “all truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.”
Charles Dickens, Thoreau, Hemmingway, Tchaikovsky, Virginia Wolf, and Nicolas Tesla – to name a few were all keen walkers when seeking inspiration.
I believe that it’s not only walking that promotes creative inspiration but the act of putting in the work and then relaxing or playing enough for everything to brew together and rise to the surface. It’s the need for both work and play.
Adding more play to our busy lives promotes a sense of well-being so that we can guiltlessly relax and receive creative inspiration while contributing to our well-being.
One of the roles of a leader is to be creative and to promote creativity within the team – Please see my recent article – https://garyhirson.com/personal-development/why-we-are-all-creative-and-why-leaders-need-to-explore-it/ What better way to promote creativity than by playing around a bit more?
All the programs I facilitate both live and online include “playfulness,” and now my latest program, “Createfulness” combines the act of playing, creativity and leading and how to incorporate them into our personal and professional lives.
Send an email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s chat about how you can inject more “Createfulness” into your life.