The word ‘play’ has an interesting connotation these days. While it generally means to take part in something, we more often associate it with children and fun or a time where we are less serious. When we are young, play is seen as necessary for development, growth, socializing and for fostering creativity, yet the idea of play past the point of puberty suddenly becomes a negative or a dirty word, particularly in the workplace.
But what if being a little more jovial, light-hearted and maybe even more open minded could mean greater insight, better ideas and even increased productivity?
As someone who works directly with people to inspire and spark innovation, the basic concept and benefits of play as an adult is not new to me. In order to get people from different disciplines, backgrounds and organizational cultures to relax into a mindset where they can freely explore their more creative side, you have to engage what is formally known as adult play.
But this is just thinking about play in a classical context and relating it to energy release or meeting basic human needs for enjoyment. Play may provide the key to unlock much more. From what I have observed and from further studies in the field, play can lead to a much deeper cognitive development. If we allow for further development and interaction with play as adults, we may just be able to tackle some of the challenges facing modern society.
What is play?
While I don’t consciously use the term ‘adult play’ when working with people, what we aim to do is to enable adults to lighten up, let go and embrace their inner child without fear of judgment. The practice of play is a vital source of stimulation and relaxation for any person, both mentally and physically.
But let’s not get confused about what adult play actually is. It is not sliding down a slippery dip, it is not rolling around with your kids, it is not going to the movies. Adult play needs to be for you, as an adult; an activity that lets you engage the creative side of your brain without censoring yourself. It is a very focused experience that can be done solo or in a group yet ultimately lets you walk away having learned something.
Although not a new concept, adult play as a practice is still very formal for adults. We often see it in the form of creative sessions, when you are cooking, painting, doing craft or participating in a class of some kind. While these practices are a good start, they are often performed in secret or private when you are officially taking time out. To really see the benefits, play needs to be accepted into everyday life. Adults need to start ‘living play’.
Play is a popular concept among tech companies; think Google. These companies have made the connection between productivity and a fun work environment. Encouraging play at work results in more productivity, higher job satisfaction, greater workplace morale, better teamwork and problem solving.
I personally always try to put an element of play into every project I do and every workshop or session I do with clients, be it ideation, insight or innovation. Without this sense of liberation people can struggle to relax, open up or get into the required mindset. When we do tap into this mindset, people can truly be open and feel brave enough to take the strategic leaps that need to happen in order to make a difference to a business.
What are the benefits of play?
Never before have we lived in such supercharged environments where so much of our attention, time and energy is demanded from all areas of our lives; be it work, family, friends, health, culture or politics. Sometimes our body requires us to just press pause and play.
From my perspective, the positives of adult play can have vast benefits. On a cognitive level play is known to improve brain function, balance emotion and boost our ability to learn as well as relieving stress and anxiety. I often wonder how many people in business are dealing with this every day, and just brush it aside and consider it normal. If we can find a way to harness play to provide relief from stress and anxiety it will benefit not just businesses, but the community and economy at large.
Economically, a surge of creative thinking drives innovation, strategic thinking, and problem-solving, which will result in economic growth and potentially the development of a smarter, more valuable workforce. Socially people will engage more and develop as individuals in a social context, giving the net result of a more socially balanced and connected community.
Up until now, I believe play has historically been kept for the more creative types, insinuating that only a certain group of people can tap into this type of innovation or insight. Naturally, I know that not to be true, creativity is not just a talent, it can be taught. As adult play more steadily enters the corporate world through innovation consultants like myself, I believe practice will become far more mainstream. Not only will we benefit from it in our personal lives, as let’s be honest, playing is fun, but we will also see a positive shift in our families, our communities and ultimately the world around us.
By Anne Lacey
Founding Partner, antedote