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Why Play is Serious Work

“When I became a man, I put away childish things”. We’ve all likely heard some variation of this quote from Corinthians at one time or another, and for a majority of the recent past, play has been relegated to the domain of childhood, or replaced with  It’s been denigrated as a waste of time, dismissed because it doesn’t always make us appear serious or professional enough, and dropped way down our to-do lists. In the age of urgency and availability, who has time to put on face paint or build a fort when they could be answering emails or learning a new professional skill?

Play is making its way back into the hearts and workplaces of adults everywhere. Strategy and computer games have seen an upswing in the number of adult players, gamification techniques are taking hold at companies and learning insitutitions across sectors, social media allows us to reconnect with our sillier selves, and research is focusing on what the benefits of fun and play can be.

More and more, adults are working to incorporate play into their lives to lower stress levels, escape from their everyday lives, and build stronger relationships. Spoiler alert: play can also make you a more productive worker. More importantly, it helps us reignite contact with parts of ourselves we may have forgotten as we’ve grown up. Most importantly, we are evolutionarily programmed to do it, and we need at least a little in our lives. If our monkey cousins still feel the need to play to socialize, learn new skills, and just let loose, why shouldn’t we?

How Do We Play?

There are a number of different types of play and ways to define it. It can be structured or free, individual or shared, competitive or cooperative, and the list just keeps going. Another difficulty for many is distinguishing between play, fun, and games.

At its simplest, play is an intrinsically-motivated and self-directed activity that involves elements of imagination or freedom of thought. Fun is the joy, excitement, amusement, or other positive emotions that are generated through different types of play. And games are a more bounded type of fun that comes with a specific set of rules, and usually with a specific end result in mind. Games can be fun or a type of play, play should be fun, and fun can be experienced in a multitude of ways. For some, cleaning can become a fun game, but we wouldn’t necessarily call it play. For others, board games may not be play or fun. And for many, play isn’t something we plan for.

Plan To Play

According to this article from The New York Times, we should be planning to play. Scheduling time to be spontaneous can allow us to let go of our everyday life and feel more free in that allotted time. If you’re struggling to even figure out what you enjoy, a list could be incredibly helpful. Write down what you used to enjoy as a kid and then try that! Or something similar.

Rather than climbing trees or making mud pies, you might want to join a climbing gym and try a ceramics class. Or climb a tree and make a mud pie. There’s something uniquely satisfying about scaling your way up a natural obstacle and squishing together the perfect mix of dirt and water. Creative activities like art classes, more physical options like team sports or dance, intellectual challenges like board games, or even watching other people perform are a good place to start. And if you’re not having fun, pick something else!

Why We Play

The reasons we engage in play as adults and as children aren’t a one to one match, but they do overlap. The most important reason? It’s fun. We want to have fun. Our bodies and our brains can let go of the stresses we face far too often, and we get a huge boost of endorphins and dopamine, both good things. These hormones not only help optimize our brain functionality and help our nervous systems reset, but also assist in building deeper bonds between individuals. Parents play with their children, people play with their partners, and if coworkers also play, it can help build trust on the team. We recently wrote an article giving some more details about how to build trust on teams, and we also offer online escape rooms to help teams reconnect and play, no matter where in the world they are.

Go With The Flow

Flow, a state studied extensively by the great positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is when we lose track of time while engaging in a task we enjoy that is just challenging enough to hold our attention without frustrating us too much. And guess what’s a great way to enter this state? We’ll trust you know the answer. Flow is a meditative state that lowers our stress levels and emotional dysregulation while raising our creativity, internal motivation, and happiness. People with more flow at the workplace are less likely to leave, feel dissatisfied at their job, or burn out. The biggest barrier we face to entering a flow state is often the distractions that surround us: emails or texts or people coming over to say hi or another unexpected meeting….so build time for flow by scheduling time for deep work. We promise it’s worth it.

Step Up Your Game

Beyond helping us reach a flow state for our more demanding and creative work, play is a great way to hone skills we need for the more serious parts of our lives, from creative thinking to communication. Having fun means we’re less worried about doing something the right way or looking dumb, and thus more likely to make mistakes and learn from them.

Research over the past few decades has shown that we learn more when we’re having fun. This is due to the hormones that are released, including norepinephrine and dopamine, which help cement any new skills or facts we pick up while playing. Games can also build our confidence by allowing us to step into the role of an “other”. This other can be a facet of our personalities we don’t often acknowledge or show the public, or it could be a character we’re playing for a very specific instance. Either way, once in that role, we aren’t ourselves anymore, and thus any mistakes or trips of the tongue are far less embarrassing. At the end of the day, it’s all in good fun.

How To Play At Work

Increasingly, workplaces are shifting how they engage with their employees as employees change how they view their workplaces. More than ever before, we’re integrating more parts of ourselves into our professional identities and swapping jobs with unheard of regularity. And companies are focusing on how to increase employee well being, engagement, and fun at work. Professionals know what they want from a position, and for many, it isn’t just a solid paycheck and the promise of a decades-long career. So how do you bring play into the workplace? That depends on whether you’re the employer or employee, but we’ll offer suggestions for both.

New generations are moving up the corporate ladder. That’s the thing about time, it really does march on. And that means workplaces have been restructured, and executives have heard that they need to have some fun at the office! Most sling a ping-pong table or pinball machine into a corner, schedule team bonding days with clockwork regularity, and put up a funny poster. Or they schedule online games for virtual teams. That’s fun, right? That will make employees jump for joy, right?? And now that employer has a great reputation and more productive workers, right???

Fun for Employees

If you’re in charge of a team or company, the best way to let people play at work is to schedule blocks of time for that purpose, but not to dictate it. You can’t order people to have fun at a team bonding day, so don’t try. Just allow everyone an opportunity to let loose, whether that’s scheduling an office happy hour or an offsite weekend, and don’t be afraid to participate yourself.

As we wrote earlier, play can lead to bonding, and a round of charades or in-office dance off can be invaluable in building bonds. You can also schedule fun team building activities, like an online game for virtual teams or an in-person escape room. These are a great way to celebrate after reaching a milestone, like the end of a draining project, because competitive play and a shared goal allows for fun while simultaneously allowing for vulnerability and connection building.

Fun for Colleagues

If you’re not at the top of the food chain and have some great ideas for how to help your team play, don’t be afraid to approach a colleague or your manager. Follow in the footsteps of Zappos with a weird talent show, check with HR to see if the quarterly budget could cover a game night, or poll your teammates to see how they want to play. People who don’t want to play are the rare exception but you may have to work to find something that fits your entire team. What’s the worst that can happen, you have too much fun together?

Why Play At Work Is Important

Play is something we can build into our lives, even as adults, and is now seen as a necessity that’s been neglected for too long. Fun has many benefits we can reap as individuals, including a release of tension and strengthening of skills, and as groups, like increased vulnerability and deeper connections. Our brains are built to play, and the longer we put it off, the worse we feel. Living in a culture where someone is constantly vying for our attention and energy can be draining at the least, and lead to burnout at its worst. Play is one way to let go, connect with other humans, and learn those new skills you want to have. Go forth and have some fun, for all our sakes.

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