THE BLOG
06/19/2013 11:51 am ET | Updated Aug 19, 2013

Play: An Unexpected Force in Jumpstarting Our Economic Engine

With unemployment in the U.S. now at 7.6 percent and 26 million youth around the world out of work, there continues to be an urgent need for solutions that increase access to job opportunities and drive economic growth. What if it turned out that the solution to this problem was as simple as child's play? Investing in play is a fundamental and unexamined part of the solution to global economic challenges.

That's because jobs begin with innovation, innovation starts with creativity, and the root of creativity is play. Yet play is increasingly overlooked in an educational culture that emphasizes training for tasks over imagination. It's time to restore play -- in childhood, throughout education and on the job.

That's the lesson of our experience at the LEGO Foundation. It was also the subject of a session that we just held at a meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, where we brought together executives from across the world to discuss how play and creativity can improve quality learning and contribute to a stronger workforce.

The urgency of the task is clear from this shocking fact: while 98 percent of three-year-olds register genius levels of creative thinking; yet only 2 percent of people over the age of 25 do.

Surely one reason is that by the time we reach the age of 25 -- a point at which we are high-minded and career-driven -- play seems, well, childish. The truth is that its simple delights -- inquiry, experimentation, disappointment, connection, engagement, application, creativity, success and, yes, failure -- require courage.

The creativity in our three-year-old brains, which can be accessible to our adult minds, is capable of generating the discoveries that can ignite our economy: the new inventions, the new approaches, the start-ups and more. Yet somewhere between early childhood and adulthood, we are allowing it to slip away. Part of the reason is that our brains naturally seek efficient rather than innovative pathways. Play is the best way to ease our minds out of that habit.

Three constituencies can advance creativity through play. The first is parents, who need to inspire play at the earliest ages. Parents have the power to inspire creativity -- to establish lifelong habits of imagination -- when brains are at their most hospitable to it.

Second, rather than test- or task-oriented training, schools need to schedule more unstructured play that allows students to discover and innovate on their own.

Finally, employers, too, have a vital role in fostering lifelong play and is something that some companies are embracing, recognizing that creativity and innovation are fostered, not stumbled upon. When the time came to develop an SUV, BMW cut its designers loose. They were cordoned in their own creative space, without any contact or pressure from members of BMW's financial team. It did this because the organization had learned that when designers were faced with negative commentary about their designs in the early stages they quickly dropped the design.

Taking creativity seriously, appreciating how it can drive innovation is something to which we all need to give more thought. It's why play, not policy, just might be the long-term solution to igniting a stalled global economy.