THE BLOG
10/17/2012 06:40 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2012

In Defense of Play

Play isn't just for kicks anymore. Or kids, for that matter. If you're keen for proof, take a run at the giant slide in the Toronto's Corus Headquarters. Better yet, look at large glass-topped conference table resting on bicycles at Saatchi Saatchi, an advertising firm that regularly integrates whimsy in the workplace.

Important stories? We think so. For over a decade, we've been testing how to use play in the least unplayful places -- working with government bureaucrats, refugees, social entrepreneurs -- to address complicated and messy issues. Last year, Zahra's design class at Ontario College of Art and Deisgn (OCAD) carried their chairs three blocks to Toronto City Hall and initiated a game of musical chairs with passer-bys -- an activity that inevitably led to dialogue about community and public space. With Canadian Federal ministry, she's facilitated a workshop to illuminate the role of play within bureaucracy; back in Toronto, she's engaged social entrepreneurs with alternative ways of brainstorming through play. Over in Kenya, Mary regularly leads play activities with post-graduate university students to explore how to design schools and learning spaces in refugee camps and communities affected by war, conflict, and natural disasters.

Everyone loves to play. How many of us have listened to guilty confessions from friends and family who sneak off for "bathroom visits" to finish a game of online scrabble? After delivering an lecture at one of Canada's top universities, Mary's friend regularly locks her office door, stretches out on the floor and plays numerous rounds of Angry Birds under her office desk. Instead of dismissing these games as "guilty pleasure", Aaron Dignan argues in his book Game Frame that online games -- like all play -- actually produces optimal learning conditions at work and in our personal lives. In this case, it may also serve to decompress, refocus, shift gears.

As educators and designers, we've seen how play evokes the most honest, creative, and innovative responses, moving people into an accessible, neutral space to engage with each other in new ways. For example, Mary's worked with Right To Play to address pressing issues such as HIV/AIDS in Africa or climbing suicide rates and high drop-out rates in Aboriginal communities in Canada. Thanks to the hard work of community mentors who are determined to revive play, the project is already showing evidence that play is renewing relationships between generations, animating leadership and liberating a sense of possibility and hope. We also saw how play can be used to open innovation: in a community action project Community Design Initiative, Zahra and her team used play to work with 75 youth to conceptualize, design, and construct an 8,000 square foot addition to a social service delivery hub in one of Canada's most marginalized communities.

This application of play would be no surprise to the play guru, Dr. Stuart Brown, author of Play and founder of the National Institute for Play. Brown arrived at his own conclusions through his research in neurology and psychiatry, where he observed consistent play deprivation in the childhood of homicidal young men. Since then, he's conducted extensive research that shows a strong correlation between success and playful activity.

So if play is so enjoyable, indispensable, and universal, why is it so suspect and still so marginalized? Spend some time by a work water cooler, and here's what you'lll likely hear: play is typcially relegated to "Work Life Balance initiatives" organized by the "Wellness Committee", which quickly translates into collective guilt for not squeezing yoga into lunch breaks. There are dreaded interactive activities at work retreats, like the "human knot" where faces are pressed into the armpit of the Human Resources Manager. The truth is, these awkward attempts to integrate a play in workplaces simply deepen collective cynicism around "play", and burying our head in the sand (or cubicle) seems like a better option than the sweaty alternative.

Perhaps this cynism can be also traced back to media images that blast the same workplace culture that has dominated the tube since 1950s. The TV hit The Office looks an awful lot like the 1960s movie The Apartment, starring Jack Lemon's clumsy attempts to struggle through cubicle office life. There is the Mad Men office where "the boys" regularly close the door to goof off and drink. Fast forward a few decades, and the signature of professional success (for a man, that is) is much the same: a private corner office where he can surreptitiously squeeze in mini-golf or shoot a hoop on the back of the office door. He's guilty all right and wouldn't dare play out out in the open; play may be a reward, but it is also retrogressive. The improvisational and uninhibited characteristics of play are particularly suspect in Judeo Christianity, where play has been historically viewed as also transgressive, distracting us -- well, Calvinists and Puritans anyways -- from the "purposeful life."

As play researchers, we are in good company: Jean Piaget, Swiss philosopher popularized the idea child's play cultivates linear and logical thinking, and play -- such as "playing house" -- are rehearsals for adult roles. Nature documentaries report over and over that animal play is similarly about rehearsing for hunting and suvival.Then again, recent research in zoology would show that when it comes to play among animals, that it's not really about rehearsal for the work and survival -- something much more complex is going on.

There may be no clear answers -- yet. Back in workshop/play studio, here is what we've distilled so far from our own experiences and the established research on play:

  1. Play is work.
  2. Play is not new.
  3. Play is necessary.
  4. Play is not an icebreaker, workshop, a networking event, or "cross-disciplinary".
  5. Play isn't easy. Rather, it challenges us to focus, expand thinking, stretch ideas, problem-solve, and try on new roles.
  6. Play allows for physical movement, self-expression and has improvisational potential.
  7. Play starts with an invitation and is by necessity, voluntary.
  8. Play liberates us from sense of time ("I lost track of time!") and evokes a desire to continue.
  9. Play involves decision-making about rules and guidelines for play.
  10. Play involves exploration of a concept, a thing, or the environment.

"Stop playing and get back to work?" Quite the opposite.