The importance of playing to grow

‘We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing’. George Bernard Shaw

Reflections on play and innovation

In human evolution there are many manifestations about the importance of play, because it’s what enables the individual to discover new approaches to deal with the world. In fact, the most creative individuals often exhibit great playfulness. We can also find these same behaviors and capabilities in animals. Some of the more interesting complicated cognitive abilities in animals are derived from playful experiences early in their lives. There are multiple biological evidences showing that experiences gained during their play can be used later in life and structured in novel ways, to solve new problems. Play experiences can also lead to the immediately discovery of new ways of doing things.

The same happens with human beings. Many theories suggest that experiences, skills, problem-solving abilities and knowledge needed for serious purposes later in life, are actively acquired or enhanced through playful engagement with the environment when we are kids. In fact, as mentioned by Bateson and Martin (2013), the suggestion that versatility, flexibility and creativity in adulthood are causally linked to play earlier in life has a long history, dating back at least as far as Herbert Spencer (1872).

Play to survive

Many of us will acknowledge the importance of the creative ability to find novel solutions and that it has had significant impact for our ancestors until today, in terms of surviving, reproducing and evolving our material culture. Also in our context today, the survival of business organizations -that depend on innovation for their success- is closely related to their emphasis on playfulness, and hence creativity in the organization, company culture and for their employees. This means to be ready to use more flexible and open approaches , which is something that traditionally companies may not used to. These companies typically feel safer promoting standard tools and rigid methods to avoid risk and reduce uncertainty by leaning on inflexible processes, gates and so on. However, today it is known that many companies that use these rigid, inflexible approaches to solving problems develop seemingly good solutions that turn out, in practice, to be of little value.

Today’s organizations need to create new situations, and a particular kind of positive mood (associated with playfulness) because this mindset, culture and approach can be especially beneficial in affecting creativity and aid in the generation of novel ideas that can be transformed into innovation. In several books and published studies, Theresa Amabile describes how a culture that emphasizes performance evaluation creates a climate of fear and risk avoidance. Organizations won’t be able to convince their best people to take risks if it entails a possible cost to their careers. Similarly, employees are unlikely to expose themselves to being chastised for trying to develop new approaches that are more flexible and open. The “playing mood” is a good solution that facilitates the creation of special environments and behaviors. Successful organizations have recognized that they need to tolerate and support differences among employees, and they are encouraging a company culture which allows an environment for time to play, to break established patterns and to combine actions and thoughts in new ways. These companies know that play is an effective mechanism for encouraging creativity and consequently facilitating innovation.

Play involves a certain type of mood and state of mind; a special experience generally outside our normal behaviors and environments, beyond roles and expertise, a kind of “lack of inhibition” situation that open our minds. Te power of play is this special “playful mood” that can be a powerful driver for making creativity and innovation happens because play involves braking normal rules. From play emerges a new perspective, a source for producing new ideas. Play is also a “cognitive tool” that provides flexibility, collaboration, novelty and openness, while creating a sense of inclusion, where people share meaning with one another. It is a strategic tool that can be used at any time to solve a new challenge, to unleash creativity:

Playing in my organization?

A problem we face is the mental barrier about playing; because, normally, people and managers think that ‘play’ is a broad term denoting any activity that is not ‘serious’ or ‘work’ and that it’s generally associated with childhood rather than adult life. Specially, managers find it difficult to support play to innovate and to facilitate creativity because their primary focus is on performance and any change away from this focus could be disruptive.

I’d like to argue that it’s a fact that play is an important form of behavior that facilitates creativity, and hence innovation. Furthermore, those new forms of behavior and new modes of thought frequently derived from play and such activities are drivers of creativity and innovation because “things” are literally examined from a very different perspective, Playing allows people and organizations to rearrange disparate ideas into novel combinations. It’s a powerful means of gaining new insights and opening up possibilities that have not previously been recognized. Play involves doing novel things or having novel ideas without regard to whether they may be justified by a specific payoff.

Play in an adult life affects the readiness with which people develop new ideas and has a broad influence on human relations. So, given what we now know about the importance of play in child development, in our communities, organizations and in society, why not play more? Why not transform our cities, schools and organizations into environments of playfulness and creativity…?.

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