The modern day workplace is often not such a happy place. Research indicates concerning trends of burnout, anxiety, depression, absenteeism, presenteeism, and bullying among other common workplace-related issues.1 Thankfully, there is an increased appreciation for workplace wellness and an uptick in counseling and support programs for staff. However, there is a powerful, overlooked activity that can reduce all of these issues while also enhancing mental health, creativity, collaboration, and self-motivation. It is something everyone has access to, often free or low cost, and is inherently fun. What is this secret sauce for personal and professional success? Play!
To be clear, play is best understood as a mindset rather than an activity. It is a mindset of being open to trying new and different things—and learning trial and error. For people of every age, play is directly linked to the development of the brain’s prefrontal cortex2—the brain region responsible for discriminating relevant from irrelevant information, goal direction, abstract concepts, decision-making, monitoring and organizing our thoughts and feelings, delaying gratification, and planning for the future. The prefrontal cortex directs our highest levels of thinking and functioning. In addition, play stimulates brain-derived neurotropic factor, which stimulates nerve growth.2 It also promotes the creation of new neuron connections between areas that were previously disconnected.3 Our need to play is so important to our survival that the impulse to play is just as fundamental as our impulse to sleep or eat.
Play has numerous benefits:
Thus, play is essential to the development of the 5 key 21st century skills of creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and contribution.
Generally speaking, play involves 2 kinds of thinking: divergent and convergent. Divergent play is unstructured, free, and about exploring different ways to do something versus learning the “right way” to do something. It requires creativity because there are no absolute right answers in divergent play. An example would be “wild” brainstorming during a meeting. Convergent play, on the other hand, involves structure, rules, or a “correct” answer like many organized sports and video or board games. It is still healthy and fun but builds less pathways for innovation and creativity.
The National Institute for Play describes various kinds of play.4 Here are a few.
People play with others not only because it’s fun but also because they’re driven by the urge to be accepted and belong. Social play is actually essential for the feeling of belonging to occur. Consider the scenario of coworkers who work together for years but never really feel connected to one another or their companies until they “play” together in activities such as company golf tournaments, recreational excursions, and social events.
Could there be anything more fundamental across human cultures than storytelling? In Western medicine, we’re often trained to eliminate storytelling in favor of science, but when it comes to motivation, storytelling is far more powerful than scientific studies—and that’s why we see it used more and more in advertising! Storytelling helps us make sense of the world, understand life’s lessons, and—in a magical way—never forget them! I tell my patients stories of celebrities or other patients journey’s as often as I can.
As hunter-gatherers, humans experienced substantial growth in our critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. We learned to think in motion, taking in and processing vast amounts of information from the environment and generating an appropriate response all while moving. By moving our bodies, we move our minds. Scientists at the National Institute of Play believe that “innovation, flexibility, adaptability, [and] resilience have their roots in movement.”2 They also believe that play via body movement teaches us about the world around us and prepares us for “the unexpected and unusual.” To me, that sounds like thinking on your feet! Workplaces could incorporate this by encouraging walking meetings. Not an option? Stand up from your desk, go for a walk at lunch, take the stairs, walk or bike to work, take a dance class, yoga class, or drop in to the gym. Just keep moving your body in new and different ways!
By manipulating objects, we’re developing complex circuits in the brain that encourage exploration, assessment of safety, and how to use the attributes of objects as tools. We can bring more hands-on activities to the workplace—sketch out ideas, create models and prototypes with simple paper and tape, place Lego bricks, puzzles, and Play-Doh in the staff room—you get the idea.
Through imaginative play, we learn the power of our own minds. Full imaginative play is highly stimulating for the brain, which makes perfect intuitive sense. Why wouldn’t the brain be working its hardest when it has nothing other than itself to work with! People who practice imagination are comfortable with cognitive uncertainty. They’re able to “make up stuff” that doesn’t exist and expand their thinking beyond the unknown. Like all play, imaginary play develops important emotional and social skills. In fact, empathy can simply be defined as “imagining what it feels like to be that person.”
A popular imaginary play activity is visualization. Visualization is a powerful way to de-stress and initiate new neural trails of confidence and creativity. It can also be very helpful in helping meet their concrete, practical goals.
We know that the human brain doesn’t always differentiate between a real memory and an imagined or visualized one. A lot of fear and anxiety we may feel about something is grounded in the uncertainty or unfamiliarity of the experience. Visualization helps familiarize the brain with that activity and builds confidence in trying new and different things. For example, my 12-year-old son is scared of heights so I guided him to use imaginary play or visualization to reduce his fears and prepare for a zip lining adventure we had planned. In the workplace, you can use visualization for anything that seems stressful—speaking to your boss about a raise, a colleague about a sensitive issue, or meeting an important client.
If you can create a clear, confident image of yourself in a situation by building a full positive visualization of the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings you might experience in a successful attempt, you will often be able to translate that positive “memory” to real-life confidence and success. This kind of visualization can also help kids to develop new skills more quickly: you can use it to help give a big presentation, meet a deadline, or improve a 3-point shots in basketball!
Do we all engage in play in the same way? According to Stuart Brown,2 a leading expert on play, we tend to play via roughly 8 broad personalities: the storyteller, the artist/creator, the collector, the competitor, the director, the explorer, the joker, and the mover. These “play personalities” are neither absolute nor exclusive of one another. Many people enjoy aspects of many or even all 8. Early play provides vital clues to our natural strengths and interests. When we play or grow according to these strengths and interests, we’re rewarded with good feelings via a release of dopamine and serotonin. Why does our biology make us feel happy when we follow our natural passions? Many people forget the second part of species survival—the first part is survival of the fittest (the ability to adapt) and the second part is diversity of the species.
We need all of these play personalities to survive as a species. In an ever-changing environment, when faced with a threat to our survival, who knows if the solution will lie in the mind of the artist/creator or the collector. For complex problems, we need the diverse play personalities to collaborate and exchange ideas for solutions. If we were all engineers, who would cure the world of the bubonic plague? If we were all doctors, who would know how to deal with a flood? If there were no storytellers how would we pass down knowledge? And if there were no musicians how would we bond socially? We’re meant to be diverse because we require minds that think in different ways to create to solve the ever-changing problems we face. Play provides the feelings of well-being and joy that lead us to pursue our interests to develop that diversity. Without play, we’re not diverse; without diversity, we can’t adapt; without adaptation, we can’t survive.
The managers at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) discovered just how important play is to success in life. They noticed that although the younger engineers had top grades and test scores from top universities, they lacked the problem-solving skills and the creativity the older engineers had. When they tried to figure out why, they discovered that the older engineers played and explored more as children. They found that many of them had engaged specifically in vigorous hands-on play as children. They were the children who took apart clocks and put them back together, built soapbox racing cars, and fixed appliances. The new generation had fabulous résumés, but they had done very little of this kind of play. To make sure JPL was hiring the employees who had engaged in this kind of play, they shifted their interview process to incorporate questions about a job applicants’ play backgrounds, which, in turn, improved their staff’s ability to tackle and resolve tough engineering design challenges. Now, if you didn’t experience a lot of play as a child, don’t worry! Nature wants us to succeed and we are hardwired to be adapt, learn, and be creative through neuroplasticity. This means every single person has the ability to form new neural pathways. We are all born creators if we just remember to play.
If you want an intelligent workforce, bring in more play. If you want you and your team to have high degrees of empathy and emotional regulation, find ways to play. If you want to be resilient, play more yourself! If you want to access one of the most powerful predictors of innovation and health, all you have to do is follow your own internal drive to play!