Play: The Gateway to Possibility

By Selina Petosa, Founder and Chief Creative Officer

Dr. Stuart Brown, a pioneer in research on play, wants all of us to play more. His popular Ted Talk makes a compelling case about how play not only makes us happier, but that it sparks ideas, fosters innovation, helps guide us into “flow” and can “unstick” us when we are facing any creative challenge. After spending this past weekend in Paris, studying the subject with several professors at Parsons, including Roger Manix, an expert on developing creative teams and culture using play, I’m convinced.

While this concept might seem very touchy-feely, the evidence is compelling. I’ll admit, I was a skeptic too — but after having gone through a weekend of exercises where play was integrated into the process, I now see the tremendous value this simple concept provides.

Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning. Play allows us to think more strategically, collaborate, communicate, and listen carefully to each other. Play allows us to solve problems by exploring them within a space that is safe, without the need to get things right. There is a distinct relationship between play and productivity; play is how the brain fuels creativity and innovation.

Dr. Brown argues that within an organization, play is not a frivolous activity, but that it’s actually what makes the work happen. Play stimulates and supports innovation, and brings people together in ways that build connection, trust, compassion, and understanding.

Steven Johnson, the author of Wonderland, How Play Made the Modern World, argues that because play is often about breaking rules and experimenting with new conventions, it turns out to be the seedbed for creativity and innovation that ultimately leads to new products, new ideas, and better project outcomes.

Play can help us unstick ourselves. Play can be the spark any brainstorming session needs to be set up for success. Play can be the catalyst to help the team think about things differently, to truly explore the possibilities of a solution. Besides benefiting the work we actually do, play is also just plain fun, and makes us happy! Happy people are creative and productive people.

Now this doesn’t mean stop what you’re doing right now and spend the rest of the day playing. I’m talking about using play as a strategic tool, to help us do better work, and to have fun while we’re doing it. I encourage each of us to think about how to integrate play into our day-to-day. Start a meeting in a fun, and interesting way. Kick off a brainstorm session with a game versus going straight to the whiteboard. Get creative! Along the way, we’ll be creating new neuro pathways for our brains, opening us up to options and new possibilities. And we’ll laugh and have some fun along the way.

There’s an abundance of information on this topic. I’ve shared a few resources for those interested below. Enjoy!

  • Dr. Stuart Brown’s Book. Play: How it Shapes the Brain, opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul.
  • Article in the New York Times: Taking Playtime Seriously
  • Peter Senge, Senior Lecturer and Researcher at MIT, book Presence. Presence is an intimate look at the development of a new theory about change and learning.
  • Article from The Neuroscience of Creativity: How the brains of innovators are wired differently.

Rational Ideas is the thought leadership hub for Rational, a digital agency and consultancy based in Seattle, WA.