Why we should keep playing as adults
To play is to “engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.” A quick search of the word “playing” on Google draws up a variety of smiling faces – kicking balls, blowing bubbles, climbing up trees – but there is one common feature: they are all children.
It is well-known that play is a critical part of child development. As laid out in the Official Journal of American Pediatrics: “It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them. Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles, [developing] the resiliency they will need to face future challenges.”
As well as being a tool through which children are able to navigate their environment, it is also the way in which they come to know each other. This is true for mammals of virtually all species. Studying Bonobos in the Congo, primatologist, Isabel Behncke Izquierdo observes that play is a crucial part of forming relationships and fostering tolerance with one another. It is how animals learn to live closely with one another without losing their temper, taking risks and experiencing fear in a protected environment.
It is the diversity of play that makes it such a powerful activity, as explained by Mark Dodgson and David M. Gann in ‘The Playful Entrepreneur: How to Adapt and Thrive in Uncertain Times’: “playfulness flourishes when there are different ideas to spark off, from dissonant voices, diverse experiences and creative abrasion.”
Yet as we get older, we begin to stop playing. “Organisations develop antibodies – rules, policies and procedures – that kill playfulness, they become clogged up, inward-looking and cautious”, Dodgson and Gann expound.
Without playfulness, we become fixed in monotonous routines. Play is a dynamic way of interacting with one’s environment – it promotes exploration and adaption – inciting fresh and imaginative approaches to obstacles.
Dodgson and Gann write about how the most successful innovators and entrepreneurs of our time our playful. “Playful entrepreneurs welcome change, are keen to seize new opportunities and are prepared to take risks. They are bold and different; they can buck the system and shake things up”.
Tim Brown, CEO of innovation and design firm IDEO, illuminates the importance of role-playing for designers, enabling them to try out other identities.
“When a kid dresses up as a firefighter,” he explains, “ he’s beginning to try on that identity. He wants to know what it feels like to be a firefighter. We’re doing the same thing as designers. We’re trying on these experiences. And so the idea of role-play is both as an empathy tool, as well as a tool for prototyping experiences.”
Whilst play provides an escape from the rules of everyday life, play is not anarchy. In order for us to play, we must know the rules of the game.
“Playful work,” write Dogson and Gann, “is work with a purpose; it is enjoyable, rewarding and deeply satisfying.”
Rather than holding “work” and “play” apart, playful work holds the opportunity to treat our environment as something we can learn from, experimenting with new ideas and having fun in the process.