When In Doubt Play
We look to habits or hacks, we seek methods or tricks, to try to be more creative. But maybe we miss the most obvious and important thing of all: play. As we seek creativity, let’s be more playful.
Children are naturally creative, happy to play in imaginary worlds and create fantasies so rich they can inhabit them for hours. I’m not sure which one we lose first, the playfulness or the inclination towards creativity. But for many people, both die before they’ve finished school.
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
– George Bernard Shaw
I’ve been writing a series on creative health. Before it ends, I want to say something about playfulness – not just because play is a vital part of creativity, but because playfulness is a sign of good health.
Think about something that has gears, like the chain on a bicycle or the gearbox in a car. Anything put together too tightly will lock up and possibly break. Mechanics use the word ‘play’ to refer to the degree of looseness required to allow the gears to work well and move freely.
In the same way, playfulness is how we keep things loose enough in our lives to let the creative gears turn.
What Is Play?
The authors of Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation explain how play is something most animals indulge in. It has important biological functions. In adult humans, it has five key features.
1 Play is fun – you play because you want to, and play is its own reward.
- 2 Play is not serious – it isn’t work, and you can get away with doing things during play that would normally carry consequences.
- 3 Play is novel – you can say and do things you normally wouldn’t, or assume roles which aren’t normally yours to take.
4 Play is different – it looks conspicuously different to normal behaviour.
5 Play indicates wellness – you can’t play if you’re sick or stressed out.
The authors go on to say play is a positive mood in which we behave in a ‘spontaneous and flexible way’. So the links between playfulness, health and creativity are many.
According to this study, creativity is one of five playful traits (along with being expressive, fun, silly, and spontaneous). These traits demonstrate ‘positive psychological functioning’ and are signs of strength of character. The study found a strong correlation between creativity and playfulness (other strongly correlated traits were zest, love, hope, and humour). The traits that correlated least with playfulness were religiosity, leadership, forgiveness, fairness, kindness, and honesty. Playfulness in adults isn’t a sign of childishness. Rather, it is an intellectual act; for example, the way adults play with language to create humour.
What Does Play Does To Us
Play taps into our default mode network, the internal system that regulates thoughts and emotions. In play, we are less self-aware and self-absorbed, the same way we are when we let our minds wander and with similar creative benefits.
Aspects of play require us to focus, to think, and to be imaginative and spontaneous, much like the way we need to be in flow states of creative work. Playing embodies joyful attention.
Playfulness can ease tension, making groups more creative and less bound by assumptions about the roles everyone should take. In groups, play can make individuals more comfortable with risk and with expressing challenging or potentially controversial concepts and ideas.
How to Incorporate Play
This study suggests play can be part of the four-stage process (plan, play, pressure, pause) for creatively engaging with information that can form the basis for a culture of innovation. Playfulness here involves taking risks, experimenting, and being comfortable with failure. Playfulness tests the edges and limits of the plan.
Making play part of a four-stage process might feel a little rigid. But it’s worth seeing play as part of the culture you want around you. It has clear and tangible benefits and connects deeply to creativity. Play is a dose of fun and delight, something we choose to insert, like the space between the gears, in order to make room for ideas and innovation. Otherwise we move too fast from ‘plan’ to ‘do’, or we live perpetually in the do-loop, never stopping to wonder why we do things the way we do, if we could do them better, or why we do them at all.
If we’re really stuck, we can always ask, what would a child do? Maybe just start writing without caring whether there’s a plan or outline. Maybe try every tool in the software and just see what it does. Maybe take the thing out and play with it, leaving the manual in the box.
When kids play, they keep going. Play generates its own momentum.
We can also think of play as the release valve when things become too stressful – when there’s too much pressure. When the going gets tough, play. When you feel you’ve run out of ideas, play. When you feel trapped by your own plans and rules, play.
When in doubt, play.
I love the way Robert Frost sums up his goal state in work and life as “…Only where love and need are one, And the work is play for mortal stakes…”
When play appears in our lives, like reframing rules-based situations as games, or freely imagining new possibilities beyond our existing expectations, it’s a sign of our health. It reveals our ability to be fully engaged with our emotions and comfortable with the people around us and with our place in the universe, not trapped by fear.
Play makes us braver, more imaginative, and more at ease with ourselves. Play makes us receptive to new ideas, to other people’s desires, and less hung up about the unknown and the unknowable. Play reminds us that the life we’ve chosen is a joyful one.
I’ve love to see us treat playtime as an important part of every day. Let’s see play not just something we ‘let’ children do when they don’t have other, more important tasks, but as an important indicator of our (adult) health. Like jumping on the scales or tracking our eating and sleeping habits.