How’s your play life?

To kickstart my Autumn reading, I’ve been delving into a business/leadership book by Stuart Brown called Play, How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination and invigorates the soul.

He talks about our ‘play life’ as essential to the quality of our human experience.  As an adult, I’d never thought of having a ‘play life’ before!

Being playful is so good for us, but how much space do we allow for play in our adult lives?

This article explores why and how you can lighten up your work and life through play.

Defining ‘play’

The author was talking to a group of engineers who pushed him to define the properties of pure play. Here’s what he came up with:

  • Play is apparently purposeless. It’s done for its own sake
  • It has an inherent attraction. It feels good so we volunteer to engage in it and keep doing it
  • It’s liberating. When we’re fully immersed in the experience of play, we stop noticing the clock and have a diminished concept of self
  • It releases our potential to be spontaneous, creative and unpredictable

Play in childhood

Have you noticed that, when young children play, they often repeat an action, a word or a sequence (which can become tiresome for the adults around them!) The child is practising and building their confidence until they absorb and embed what they’re learning and move on.

As it turns out, childhood play is essential for the development of the brain. Stuart Brown says:

“Play seems to be one of the most advanced methods nature has invented to allow a complex brain to create itself.”

Thinking about childhood play, it’s natural, fluid, and unstructured. Children make it up as they go along.

But children also play within rules which are initially created with their playmates and which change as play continues.

With this constant evolution, there’s no right and wrong.

In the animal world, young mammals, in particular, often play very physical rough-and-tumble games. This serves as an important learning process for them, just as it does for young children.

All that fantasy and free-flowing playfulness is teaching them skills they can depend on as adults. These include:

  • Boundaries of what’s good and right compared with what’s inappropriate and hurtful, emotionally or physically
  • Rules of social engagement – emotional intelligence, social intelligence and how to play with others
  • Their own limits about what feels good and how to balance their needs in relation to others

Play in adulthood

As adults, we can feel guilty about taking time out to play.

Our bias is often to make play ‘socially acceptable’, whether that’s solo play, such as cycling, or through a contact team sport, or something more cerebral, like a book club.

You might also explore play through creative and cultural expression by taking part in art classes, community theatre, singing, dancing or improvisation. Or a wine appreciation society, puzzle-making group, storytelling club… the options for play really are quite endless.

How do you play?

And if not, when did you stop playing?

Being playful

You don’t have to limit play to an activity. You can adopt playfulness as an attitude or mindset from which to approach life.

This kind of play is not about achieving a set of metrics. There’s no pressure to be good at it or better than someone else, nor to meet objectives or achieve a faster time.

The point is not about performance or self improvement, but can simply be about fun, novelty, exploration or discovery where it’s OK not to be any ‘good’ at it. It’s your opportunity to open yourself to new and unfamiliar experiences in a safe and playful way.

Letting your inner child out to play more often can help you bring that part of yourself into more serious contexts, and with more skill.

How can you create a safe way to enable the benefits of playfulness? A way for you to explore and embrace the creative experience of play that won’t damage your professional reputation but that will cause positive consequences.

Personal experience

Recently, I was on holiday with my sister. She’s an accomplished artist who shares a workspace with two other artists. They wanted to push beyond their artistic boundaries and decided to meet weekly to undertake art experiments that had nothing to do with their preferred style or subjects.

I joined them for a session, but felt nervous and uncomfortable because I’m not an artist! I was worried about being judged by the experts as being awful. But I was also curious about playing with paint and pencils and paper and collage…

It turned out the other artists had the same worries as me. They were all nervous about letting go and simply playing (which made me feel better).

To stop us from ‘getting into our heads’, we were given some simple rules to follow, such as: “Draw a pencil mark”, “Pick up the ink dropper and squeeze it to create a shape”.

We built our creations, layer by layer, following instructions and using different media. We had to work with whatever emerged, and accept it, without controlling it.

It was wonderfully playful and liberating to accept that we couldn’t control the outcome. We could just relax and enjoy the process for its own sake.

What I learned was:

  • It’s okay to have no control of the outcome
  • Don’t get too attached – in play there is no such thing as right or wrong
  • Be OK with whatever emerges

In the end, I am happy to admit that my ‘masterpiece’ really wasn’t worth framing and I threw away what I’d created! But I felt ‘freed up’ by participating fully in the process and I wanted more of that playfulness in my life.

Benefits of playfulness

There’s loads of research showing the benefits of play to adults. Being more playful benefits leaders in the workplace because it:

  • Reduces feelings of stress and helps you remain functional during stressful periods
  • Lifts depression and anxiety
  • Releases endorphins
  • Improves mood and wellbeing
  • Improves brain cognition and neural connections (because it stimulates nerve growth in the part of the brain where emotional and executive decisions are processed)
  • Releases joy and improves quality of life
  • Stimulates a deeper sense of connection
  • Ignites creativity and imagination, the source of problem solving and innovation
  • Frees up your potential and helps you become a more well-rounded person

You Team Environment

These effects are not limited to the moment of play.

“Play is a catalyst. The beneficial effect of getting just a little true play can spread through our lives, actually making us more productive and happier in everything we do.”
Stuart Brown

When you give expression to your own playful spirit, it will infuse your leadership style and affect how you engage your team, stakeholders and colleagues as well as how you approach challenges.

Play in the workplace

How can you bring more play into your workplace?

Lots of companies have introduced physical spaces for play, so people can let off steam. Its become popular to install ping-pong or foosball, or provide bean bags where people can relax and engage in an informal way.

But there are many other ways to introduce playfulness in ways that support engagement, creativity, team working and problem solving.

Here are some practical ideas.

  • Make the thinking environment more playful. Host your team’s strategic planning session outside the office, in an art gallery, coffee shop, a board game café, or perhaps on an outdoor walk-and-talk. Use word association games to trigger creative improvisational thinking. Experiential Speaking and Unboring by Jackie Barrie are great little books packed with ideas for creative icebreakers, energisers and games that can be used to energise team sessions, enliven presentations and help embed learning, whether in person, online or hybrid
  • Set a playful challenge. Send pairs out with camera phones and a question, for example: “What should we focus on next year as our North Star?”, using their phones to capture images that tap into their creativity and relate to the North Star. When they come back get everyone to share their photos and discuss what they lead the team to think about
  • Bring something physical. Jodie ran a brainstorming meeting in a kitchen. The objective was to name a new catalogue. Each person was given a carrier bag full of household items, such as a pair of rubber gloves. They had to pick out an item and think of a name related to it. The process resulted in a wider range of creative suggestions than sitting round a flipchart ever would
  • Work in a creative way. Take time for team bonding and development at a circus school, an animal sanctuary, or facilitating a community project. It’s enormous fun and can stimulate new thinking about things you’re doing back in the company
  • Inject playful connection times into team traditions. For example, I was once part of a team where each of us would take it in turns to host cake and tea at our office desk. We would each bake something from our own culture, and we’d gather for an hour of chat, laughter and informal catching up. It created a wonderful connection between the disparate team members and became a highly anticipated moment in the month
  • At an organisational level, I delivered a Zoom storytelling programme for stressed NHS admin staff during Covid. For 90 minutes each week, they could down tools and do something that felt nourishing. I’d share a live performance of an intriguing fairy-tale, and then host some silent reflection, allowing them to connect with what they felt as they heard the story, and do some self-coaching using imagery from the story’s archetypes. it was a deep and refreshing way to reconnect to what was important to them in a difficult time

Questions to ask yourself

“Play is a state of mind rather than an activity.”
Stuart Brown

Remember, play is not limited to a hobby or activity. A playful spirit, attitude and mindset will benefit all of your life and will show up in all areas, including the workplace.

  • What would happen if you gave yourself permission to develop your own playfulness?
  • What would be the impact on your team, partner, friends, other people?
  • Where would you like to see more playfulness in your life? In your team? In your organisation?
  • How are you cultivating play in your life, right now?
  • How willing are you to try new things, experience the unfamiliar and not need to be any good at it?

Related reading

If you enjoyed this, you might like our other articles on related topics:

Another great book to inspire you is What if! How to start a creative revolution at work by Dave Allan, Matt Kingdon, Kris Murrin and Daz Rudin.

Next month

Thoughts on overcoming the challenges of leading in an Agile environment.