Solving play's PR problem

Toy inventor Brendan Boyle thinks play has a PR problem. Not amongst the young consumers of his awesome creations, but in business.

So let’s take a fresh look at six things we know about play and work. (To really get into the spirit, you could roll a dice to decide the order to read them in.)

  1. Play defined
  2. Part of the process
  3. Play and the entrepreneur
  4. Six play behaviours for the workplace
  5. Encourage the ridiculous
  6. How ‘T-shaped’ people play

Brendan Boyle is head of the Toy Lab at global design company IDEO. He is passionate about bringing play and business together.

Outside of the lab at least, this isn’t the most obvious pairing. Not because of a lack of table football or beanbags – but because of the widely-held view that play is something separate from work.

What is play?

Play’s ‘PR problem’ is evident as soon as we try to define it. Some people think it’s just for children. Plenty of companies try to accommodate it, but treat it as ‘time out’ from work.

To Boyle, play is the ultimate form of engagement. It keeps us enthused about learning and drives innovation.

Part of the process

He believes – as does leading play theorist Dr Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play – that play is something we’re biologically hardwired to do.

So rather than switching off this human impulse during office hours, we can embrace it as an integral part of the process.  

Play and the entrepreneur

Boyle is a staunch advocate for entrepreneurship and innovative thinking. With Brown, he teaches a course at Stanford University’s design school called From Play to Innovation. It partners students with real-world businesses to promote innovation.

Read: Why play is the real game-changer at work

Six play behaviours for the workplace

In an article on, Boyle outlines six behaviours that can bring big advantages for business.

  1. Cooperative play: “Games spark healthy competition while also inspiring teamwork, camaraderie and fun,” he says. This behaviour can pay dividends in a brainstorming session, where great ideas benefit the whole team.
  2. Risk-taking play: First isn’t usually best when it comes to ideas. “Recovering after a loss allows you to learn faster and get closer to a win than if you never tried at all,” explains Boyle.
  3. Constructive play: Sometimes it pays to just get stuck in. At IDEO, this is done by creating prototypes and learning along the way. “We call it ‘thinking with our hands’,” says Boyle. 
  4. Exploratory play: “One of the toughest but most rewarding parts of being a toy inventor is figuring out how to make an idea for a toy come to life –and actually work!” reflects Boyle. Sometimes you really do have to ‘play around’ before you can find a solution.
  5. Storytelling and narrative play: “Kids love to learn through storytelling. It gives them context and purpose”. Boyle says that good toys usually have great stories – but in all areas of business, storytelling can drive innovation.
  6. Physical play: IDEO workspaces are designed “to be like playgrounds, with flexible, open environments that encourage people to get up and bump into those they don’t sit next to”.

Encourage the ridiculous

Whether it’s a chance encounter or a scheduled brainstorm, when you’re next exchanging ideas with a colleague, don’t discount the ridiculous. “Big innovation is right on the edge of ridiculous ideas,” says Boyle.

How ‘T-shaped’ people play

Boyle explains that certain types of people really ace these play behaviours. He specifically looks to recruit “T-shaped people” who “have a depth in some area but the T across means they’re excited about learning across all disciplines of design thinking”.

Consider yourself a guru? Then team-play may not be your forte. “We try and avoid the I-shaped people,” says Boyle. “Those are what we call gurus and they’re generally cranky and don’t get along well in teams.” You have been warned!


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