Why play is the real game-changer at work

Did you know there’s a School of Play? Not a new concept in learning through console gaming, but “a pop-up school dedicated to promoting happier adulthood through lifelong play”. Its founder, Portia Tung, believes play is also the route to a happier workplace – and not, contrary to popular belief, the preserve of children or ‘the opposite of work’.

Tung was inspired by the book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul by Dr Stuart Brown – eminent psychiatrist and founder of the National Institute for Play in California.

What is play?

Brown compares play to oxygen, saying, “It’s all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing.”

Tung’s definition, which is expanded in her presentation about play, teamwork and creativity, is that “play is when you have more fun than purpose.”

Isn’t that for outside office hours?

But how much relevance does ‘fun’ have in a productive workplace? The School of Play’s play manifesto describes play as “game-changing” – but how does it apply to business?

If the notion of a school of play sounds contradictory, consider the research. In a TED talk at the Serious Play 2008 conference, Brown referred to the many experiments (mainly on rats; they’re ethically tricky on humans) which show that play improves memory and stimulates brain growth.

In one study, neuroscientists raised some rats in solitary confinement and others in stimulating environments with plenty of toys. They found that the rats that were allowed to play had bigger brains than their non-playing counterparts. Later research showed that the bigger-brained rats were cleverer and more adaptable, too – able to find their way through a maze more quickly than the others.

Read: Fitness and frivolity in the office must involve everyone

We already know that children learn through play. Several studies show they pay more attention to learning after a break for free play. Other research reveals links between play and the development of language skills, creative problem-solving and mathematical ability.

And it seems similar advantages are attainable for adults – in the right environment.

Don’t stop playing

Brown believes the ‘child mindset’ – what he describes as “purposeless, fun and pleasurable” – is crucial for adults. Not, as you might assume, to give us a break from work, but to integrate with and improve our work.

He advocates choosing “not to engage in the work-play differential” but instead to “infuse” our everyday lives with play. This, he says, boosts creativity and productivity, as well as overall wellbeing.

Play and the creative spark

Few would argue that ‘kicking back’ occasionally at work enhances our wellbeing. Many studies also show that accessing a playful mindset helps us to think imaginatively and work creatively, making it easier to adapt and problem-solve. (Remember those rats learning to find their way through a maze?)

Influential play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith demonstrated that study participants could think more creatively about possible uses for an object after they’d been allowed to play with it. Others who had not played with the object came up with significantly fewer ideas about its function.

Why was this? Research suggests that play put us into a psychological state in which it’s ok to test things out and explore the unknown, without fear of failure. This freedom to try and fail encourages creativity.

Play and productivity

Play can certainly make work more enjoyable. Work satisfaction can, in turn, increase focus and productivity. Think of that state of being ‘in the zone’, when you’re totally, happily, immersed in a particular activity. Time seems to ‘fly’ – just like Tung’s definition of play.

Read: The secret to the work-hard, play-hard mentality revealed

Play and relationships

In childhood, play drives positive socialisation. As adults, we can harness a similar power – using play to improve relationships and encourage teamwork.

Hierarchies are often described as barriers to innovation. But play is a great equaliser and may even help to flatten these problematic structures.

For example, some of the slides illustrating Dr Brown’s TED talk show the incredible interaction of a predatory polar bear and a tethered husky dog. Responding to mutual play signals, they turn what looked certain to be a fight to the death into an episode of play. Brown describes it “a marvellous example of how a differential in power can be overridden by a process of nature that’s within all of us.”

In other words, play can really shake things up, in all sorts of unexpected situations.

Playing at work

Giving ourselves permission to play at work doesn’t have to mean whoopee cushions in the boardroom. Remember: play doesn’t have to be a specific activity; it’s also a state of mind.

Tung illustrates her talk with a graph showing four quadrants representing the different play mindsets you might encounter at work.

The best place to be, of course, is in quadrant 1, where you’ll find play-seekers who give themselves permission to play. (How often? you might ask. Tung recommends a little-and-often approach: 5–10 minutes of play a day.)

So, how can you add play into your work-life? Here are some of The School of Play’s tips:

  1. Give yourself a break: whether it’s a walk outside or a chat around the water cooler, give yourself permission to shift focus away from work and refresh your outlook.
  2. Go for social play: from team breakfasts to drinks after work, think of ways to encourage collaboration, and discover the benefits of ‘playing through’ organisational change.
  3. Combine breaks with social play: even simple games boost morale and help maintain overall focus in times of pressure.

A word of warning

Brown cautions that when people consider how to have more fun doing their work, they sometimes decide to change jobs, in pursuit of that elusive work–play fusion.

But if you need any further convincing of the benefits of bringing play into the workplace, remember the words of Brian Sutton-Smith, who famously said: “The opposite of play isn’t work – the opposite of play is depression.”

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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