Transcending the Foosball Table

We’re all problem solving during our respective work days; visually, structurally, programmatically. Largely, this process occurs through the lens of project work. Inclusive of being in the zone can come a mentality of “just getting through it”, as milestones and client expectations loom large. Collaboration, exploration, and potential innovation are often the procedural victims.

There’s immense value in pausing mid-process, taking a break from the zone, and refocusing that creative process back to exploring, building, and experimenting: with our hands. And without a keyboard.

I’m not talking about scrimshawing a birdhouse out of a single piece of oak, or chiseling a sculpture out of a block of Italian marble. No, I’m talking about Legos. Ink wells and brushes on 80 lb. paper. 3500-piece puzzles.

Effectively, playing at the office.

My son’s wooden train set, ruled by Thomas the Tank Engine

The Island of Sodor and Beyond

The act of play sparks our imagination. It introduces an organically collaborative atmosphere where challenging dialogues can unfold naturally. When I sit down with my 2 year-old son at home and we play with his wooden train set, play time is no joke for him. He’s learning. He’s questioning (“Daddy, why aren’t you a woman?” was dropped on me just yesterday, in fact). Of course, quite often there’s laughter while we’re playing, and that’s wonderful. In the work place and toward the notion of refocusing ourselves, all of the above are equally valuable.

At the office, designating an area for open thought and creation, without cannibalizing a vast amount of work space, is where it all begins.

Consider this a space that encourages employees to work with tangible media, completely out of the context of the digital realm. Jo Cofino’s article “Why Lego’s CEO Thinks More Grown-Ups Should Play at Work” asks the man behind the bricks, Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, about the value of hands-on play in the workplace. Citing that “one of the biggest mistakes companies can make is to think that sticking a foosball or pingpong table in the office equates to playfulness,” Knudstorp noted:

“It goes a lot deeper than that, and play offers a lot of promise for businesses. Creative companies create inspiring environments. Tim Brown of innovation and design company Ideo says play creates a risk-free environment that encourages people to experiment, as there is no such thing as failure. It is much more conducive to problem solving than the traditional ‘I am right and you are wrong and there is only one way of doing things.’”

Within an office, need it be a planned thing to approach this “play area” and create? It can be, but situationally a developer may just hop out of their chair, beeline it to the Legos, and start building something with intensity. Perhaps a coworker is there already, building and deconstructing. Some may prefer solitude in creation. Some may question, collaborate, and refashion.

TED speaker and psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Brown cites the benefits of this type of motor skill-centric activity for adults in his aptly titled book, “Play.” Agnostic of role, career path, or skill set, he notes that it’s more about the voluntary act itself instead of the outcome of the creation. Taking you “out of time”, it affords a sense of engagement, augmenting problem solving and creativity.

In Closing, First Things First

This entire scenario — a space utilized for open exploration within the office—is predicated upon mutual respect and trust between business and employee. To the former entity’s responsibility: recognizing that it’s not only necessary to step away from one’s desk to recalibrate through exploration, but respecting that this time will be used conscientiously. To the latter individual: trusting that time for play isn’t frowned upon nor judged, while respectfully utilizing those moments in concert with other responsibilities.

With this harmony achieved, the value of play is best realized.