Introducing Play into Your Workday

Nicole Dery | 12/02/2019

“Go outside and play! Preferably in a natural setting and with as little structure as possible. See you in 30 minutes.”

I asked my amazing sister Maia — a creative consultant and life coach — to come into our studio for a visit. I thought some of her ideas and training might be of service to my colleagues. We gathered with sandwiches while she talked to us. Then she sent us out to play.

Maia made some pretty audacious claims. She suggested that our power to summon playful states enhances both our experiences and the outcomes of our work. She told us that this skill, like our design, research and development skills, is honed only with practice — lots and lots of practice. She made her case with stories and with science.

First, she described her midlife discovery of surfing and the way it had deepened her creative potential. She spoke about how she had to learn to value her time surfing as a critical input to her professional capacity. In Maia’s words, “Unstructured play is sometimes denigrated, more often ignored by our culture of compulsive, constant, connected accomplishment. The irony is that during times of dense challenges, for those whose work demands engagement and creativity (nearly all of us), the ability to play makes accomplishment more accessible. You will have a much easier time accessing or summoning that state at work if you practice playing.” She surfs every day. She revels in it every day. Her work writing, speaking and enlightening individuals and groups like ours depends on it.

If we’re in the habit of seeing work as an all-serious endeavor, we might feel silly or irresponsible to take our eye off the metaphorical ball in favor of picking up a real one to toss around with our coworkers or kids. Maia led us in exercises to show us how tossing a ball, or playing with sticks, or dancing, or any other kind of activity that helps you induce a state of play can be a source of discovery, inspiration and innovation.

In his bookPlay: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Dr. Stuart Brown describes the ways play is evolution’s mechanism for brain development. Younger big-brained animals have particularly high play needs while their brains are developing. But humans have a unique capacity to add cells to their brains (neurogenesis) well into adulthood. As a result, humans have a lifelong need for play.

Play was just part of the prescription Maia offered for counteracting the destructive effects of project stress and demanding schedules. She talked about research revealing the physiological and psychological benefits of spending time being active in natural environments. For example, there is a growing body of research into the Japanese tradition of Shinrin Yoku, or forest bathing. Recent research has shown that business people who spent a weekend walking in a forest showed a measurable increase in immune function for 30 days, as opposed to a control group who walked the same distance in an urban environment.

Maia also introduced us to a relatively new, interdisciplinary kind of research called embodied cognition. This research posits that our bodies are crucial to our ways of thinking. For example, all of our sensory organs are concentrated on one side of our bodies (the front side). Our bodies are built to move more easily in one direction than others (forward). As a result, we have a tactile conception of forwardness. Out of that tactile understanding, we developed a more abstract, metaphorical idea of “forwardness” or “backwardness.” In other words, what we do with our bodies directly affects how we generate ideas.

After the workshop I asked Maia to summarize what she was urging us to embrace. She pointed out that the metaphors that emerge from play can be crucial inspiration for figuring out difficult puzzles and finding new ways to overcome massive challenges. Before she left, she reminded us: “Mix the concepts of the embodied cognition researchers with those of the play research and you get a clear prescription for better, more fun, and fulfilling work lives. Go outside and play. Not just once during a workshop, but as often as possible. It will change your body, change your brain, and make you better at what you do.”

Photography by Jena Marini