Why play matters


Drory Ben-Menachem

As the father of a two-year-old, I bear daily witness to the value and joys of play. I watch my son navigate his world in the purest ways — he looks, touches, pushes, pulls, builds, breaks, throws, drops… everything.

It’s part of his process, his method for learning how the world works.

There’s a research quote many have used — from where it originates, I have no idea—that says “the average first-grader spends 50% of their waking hours engaged in construction play”. And it’s play. It’s not planned, it’s pure experience. Children don’t approach a pile of blocks or Legos with a plan or a spec, they just dive in — building up, tearing down, and learning each time they do it. Play is integral to their understanding of the world; a way to gain insight and empathy.

And it made me wonder: at what point in our life does that typically stop for us?

Thankfully, my career as a Designer has helped me rediscover the power of play within the workplace, but there was a time where this was not the case. And I’ve met many a Designer where this is still the case. For them (and for me in my youth) “design” was work, not play.

But why? Didn’t we get into the creative field because we found it fun? Exciting? Playful? Can this not be said for any field, if one has a heartfelt passion for it? When did “play” become the antithesis of work? Something frivolous and wasteful?

“Play is the work of the child.”
— Maria Montessori

When I was in junior high (or middle school for some), I was introduced to this thing called “physics”. As an excruciatingly inquisitive child, I was always seeking out the “why” of things. Suddenly, I had at my fingertips a font of scientific knowledge and evidence that helped me fill in the blanks. It became a passion of mine — I would read anything I could, do my own experiments, and I even discovered a love for math and writing. Until 10th grade.

To this day I cannot recall the name of my 10th-grade science teacher, but I remember his face. Weathered gray skin surrounding a scraggly unkempt beard that barely concealed his perpetual scowl. We called him “The Wizard” because he could destroy your GPA with the mere wave of his hand (which usually had a big red marker in it). This man had no love for science, yet he found himself having to “try and educate an endless cycle of increasingly stagnant minds” each year. Thus he was a stickler for perfection in his classroom, often at the expense of process. Or passion. Or learning.

In the span of a single school year, he succeeded in dampening my passion for science — turning it from something I enjoyed, to something I dreaded. Because he focused solely on the results of our efforts — holding them to some arbitrary standard of “perfection” — and ignored the processes we employed to arrive at those results, we learned very little from him beyond the concept that “science is hard, science is work, there is no place for fun in science”. Had I not encountered The Wizard during my high school career, I may not have pursued a career as a Designer. I might be employed as a Physicist somewhere. Or teaching it.

Here’s the irony: Science is not Work. Science is probably the purest form of play in the adult world. It is a passionate drive to explore; to understand the way the world works — building up, tearing down, and learning each time they do it. Scientists are kids who have never really grown up.

“Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. Very few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.”
—Carl Sagan

Modern society has largely devalued “play” in the adult world, in favor of “work”, mostly because work is easier to measure for results and is easier to manage because of its inherent structure and hierarchy. And if something is harder to manage and measure, it’s harder to make money on.

But play is a powerful catalyst — for discovery, for problem-solving, for innovation. It frees us from traditional constraints and encourages us to challenge the status quo. And there are countless studies that show how embracing play in the workplace can improve productivity, results, and employee well-being.

Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute of Play says, “There is good evidence that if you allow employees to engage in something they want to do, (which) is playful, there are better outcomes in terms of productivity and motivation.”

Play not only boosts motivation and eases stress, but it also may increase productivity. Brown explains, “All sorts of creative new connections are made when you’re playing that otherwise would never be made.” Since some companies may not love the idea of prolonged “play” breaks, Brown says that employees can take it upon themselves to find small ways to play throughout the day. According to Brown, “If you’re engaged in it deeply, that’s play.” For some people, this could be as simple as listening to music or thinking back to a playful time in their childhood.

Other respected academics have found that play can be good for business. “Play at work improves employees’ motivational and cognitive processes and diversionary play fosters creativity. Ultimately, it helps organizations generate ideas for their new products and processes, respond to new challenges and create a social context that promotes on-going creativity” (Professor Babis Mainemelis & Sarah Ronson of London Business School, Sept 2006).

“If you want people to be more creative, give them more time to play.”
— John Cleese

My old theatre coach once told me that “the two things that stand in everyone’s way when they undertake anything are fear and ego”. Think back to the last time you had to speak in front of a group of people, or even present an idea to a room of your peers. You may have been nervous, fearful, and very aware of your own existence at that point. You may have held the belief that “If I throw out a ridiculous idea, everyone’s gonna laugh at me, or say it’s stupid.” This is your ego generating fear in your own mind, absent any external stimulus — ergo it hasn’t happened yet and it’s all in your head, established by years of conditioning in the workplace; don’t speak out, don’t be disruptive, go with the flow, follow the leader.

Play gives us permission to turn the workplace upside down; into a place where we can follow the follower — rigorously supporting whomever initiates. Play diffuses critical thinking because when it’s about creating something new, there’s nothing to be critical about.

Some of the most life-changing innovations in history have come from those with the creative confidence to challenge convention and zag when others zig. The desire to embrace the idea above all else; to nurture it and help it grow. To play with concepts that wouldn’t traditionally be compatible. The willingness to buck a trend or blaze a different trail. If they hadn’t, we might not have air travel. Or electricity. Or antibiotics. Not to mention all the myriad of technology that enables you to read this article.

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.”

― Frank Herbert, Dune

Embracing play in your workday doesn’t mean you don’t work hard, or that you never do boring tasks. As anyone who has played a sport can attest, you work as hard as anyone but you never complain because you’re having fun doing it. As the philosopher, Alan Watts said: “This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” Here are a few pointers to help with you with that realization:

Fail fast, fail cheaply, fail often.

The best way to know if something is going to work is to actually try it. Fearing failure stifles creativity and progress. If you’re not failing, you’re not going to innovate. Embrace a plan that affords you the opportunity to fail early and often — heck, you don’t even need to have a plan at all, just start playing with ideas and concepts, building up, tearing down, and learning each time you do it.

Foster an atmosphere of co-creation.

In improv, the classic rule of engagement is called, “Yes, and.” When your partner says something, you respond, “Yes,” and then add to it. Whatever someone says, affirm and build on in it without criticism or judgment. You can create interesting scenes and characters that way. You can also create an entire business model.

Understand the difference between censoring and filtering.

Many people often confuse the two or think that they are one and the same. The distinction is an important one and can be a very powerful tool for those who understand why. Censoring — plain and simple — is saying to yourself “I shouldn’t say/do that”. There is a deadly finality in it when it comes to creativity. Filtering, on the other hand, is determining the best way to say/do something so that it is appropriate for the audience. It leaves the mental door open for exploration and possibilities.

Flirt with the ridiculous.

IDEO’s Brendan Boyle is famous for saying this and it beautifully summarizes a powerful philosophy — don’t be afraid to look at things in a different light or from a different angle, combine disparate objects to find synergies between them, and explore unconventional uses for everyday objects. The result is often amusing, but that’s the whole point. Humor alters the brain’s chemistry, making the two hemispheres of the brain work together more efficiently (as it attempts to understand why something is funny). This is why humor is a fantastic catalyst for memory, associative thought, and ideation.

Work and play are words used to describe the same thing under differing conditions.”
— Mark Twain

To sum up:

Play helps with inspiration

  • Raises energy, alertness, and positive feelings
  • Engages & integrates different parts of the brain & body
  • Unleashes an aliveness only found in-the-moment
  • Becomes self-motivating because it’s fun
  • Awakens & focuses previously dormant creative potential

Play helps with ideation

  • Creates new neural pathways and releases endorphins
  • Develops confidence in navigating the unknown
  • Generate more novel ideas in a shorter amount of time
  • Develops flexible thinking
  • Activates the imagination in new and surprising ways
  • Expands the “playing field” of the mind

Play helps with innovation

  • Enables more risk-taking and spontaneous behaviors
  • Shakes people out of traditional ways of doing things
  • Increases ability to add to other’s ideas in inventive ways
  • Challenges assumptions & conventions
  • Breaks habitual patterns of thinking, being, and doing
  • Fosters experimentation without fear of failure
  • Allows new patterns, directions & prototypes to emerge

Play helps with integration

  • Instantly equalizes every member of the group
  • Sets the stage for ongoing generative co-creation
  • Increases trust and respect between team members
  • Fosters thinking in terms of “ours”, as in “look what WE did!”

Now go out and play.

    Drory Ben-Menachem

    Written by

    Design thinker, problem crusher, idea shepherd, storyteller, researcher, mentor, foodie, film buff, gamer, dataviz geek, husband, father, aspiring rally driver.

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