Play and its significance seems to be a difficult notion to grasp. We associate it with childhood and even then erode its importance in young lives.

I worked with children in play settings including in adventure play for many years. It astonishes me still, how little respect there is for play. You can hear it in language:

‘Don’t play with that!’

‘Stop playing around!’

‘That’s not for playing with!’

Though the huge benefits of play have been well documented, it’s not really valued in our society. Even with young children it’s viewed as of lesser importance than school, whereas it’s actually the exact opposite, as Fred Rogers* said, ‘Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.’

When play and its value isn’t respected, it’s easy for play opportunities to decrease and even disappear. This doesn’t bode well for future healthy humans.

I’m of a generation who played a lot and usually out of the watchful eyes of an adult.

When we were bored we used our imagination and made up games, invented things, drew and read for hours. We had imaginary friends, rode bikes around the streets, climbed trees, built dens, went exploring and didn’t come home until dinner. We didn’t have 24/7 screen and digital access – it wasn’t a thing because it wasn’t there.

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Play is serious business

In the dictionary, play is defined as, “To do things for pleasure, as children do; to enjoy yourself, rather than work; to pretend to be or do something for fun; be involved in a game.”

One reason it’s not really valued is it can’t be measured. It very often doesn’t have a specific or immediate outcome nor does it involve monetary exchange. Plus as something that’s primarily done just for fun, it’s viewed as frivolous, especially in the serious world of work!

Yet play is vital for the rounded and healthy development of a child. It helps them explore and make sense of the world. All baby mammals play and when they do, they’re vulnerable to attack from predators. Therefore if play wasn’t essential, it would have been evolved out over time.

Free play gives a child a variety of sensory, physical, emotional and cognitive experiences. In the early years, these build millions of connections in the brain and children develop physically, cognitively, socially and emotionally.

In quality play settings children access a variety of spaces for play and learn fast through play. At school, very often young children spend considerable time (for them) sitting at a desk for formal learning. Additionally there’s been a steady erosion of access to creative and art subjects, which are included only after the rest of the curriculum boxes have been ticked.

In this way play and creativity has been pushed further out of the curriculum and out of childhood. Yet imaginary, risky, experimental play is essential for developing creative thinking and problem solving skills, for socialisation and building confidence and self esteem. By decreasing access to quality play opportunities we’re doing future generations a disservice and research has shown that children who’ve not explored and played have difficulty problem solving.

What about play and home life?

Sadly that’s changed a lot since I was a child too. The majority of parents are either fearful of their child having an accident or getting hurt, or ‘getting it wrong and being judged by other adults. This has led to over protection, the under estimation of children’s capabilities and helicopter parenting, which is preventing children from developing resilience skills. Nowadays, children’s time is overly structured with organised play activities, extra lessons, homework or excessive screen time.

The most beneficial option for children to play is in the natural environment – the woods, beaches, hills and fields where they they can play in the elements with lots of different materials. This helps develop something Fraser Brown (play researcher) called ‘compound flexibility’. It’s the capacity to experiment and explore, learn to measure and take risks, develop the imagination, problem solving and lateral thinking skills and build confidence and self esteem. A poor quality, limited environment results in the opposite. You don’t learn rounded skills for life in front of a screen or with virtual reality glasses on!

I do have some empathy for overworked and stressed out parents who simply don’t have the time or energy to do it another way. Yet in our society today, there’s a distorted and inaccurate view of risk and the dangers that children might face, which has changed attitudes and beliefs and made a rod for our own back. We’ve veered so far off the path, very few parents know how to get back.

Play is children’s business. They have the most creative, flexible minds on the planet. We as adults could learn a thing or two from children instead of it seemingly always being the other way around. I think there’s still some deeply embedded belief from the Victorian age about children deferring to adults and being seen and not heard.

What about play for adults?

It sounds a little silly doesn’t it?

Well, if we don’t value play for children, we certainly don’t value it for adults. However, it’s of huge value for our health and wellbeing, it helps to reduce stress and has lots of benefits in the workplace too.

Research shows that for adults, playing releases endorphins and improves brain functionality, stimulates creativity and innovation and can help adults stay feeling more youthful and energetic. Play brings a sense of engagement and pleasure. It enables us to be present in the moment and we can lose track of time. The taking part often becomes more important than the outcome. Furthermore, play improves memory and stimulates the growth of the cerebral cortex. Playful adults have the ability to transform everyday situations, even stressful ones, into something more fun.

There are so many types of play, all of which have value and purpose and can be a part of our adult and working lives. Creative agencies and businesses often have spaces for play because they know it works. However I’m not talking about just offering table football and table tennis here, which is what they often do.

Many of us give up on play, forgetting what it is. Our lives become overloaded with responsibility and expectations of who we should be and how we should behave. Years down the line we end up wondering why we feel unfulfilled or unhappy. A study by BrightHR called It Pays To Play found the opposite of play is not work, it’s depression! So isn’t it high time we brought real free play right back into our lives?

Play in business

Play in business supports the development of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, critical and creative thinking, connection and bonding.  When we connect through fun and laughter, barriers are lowered and new and different connections are made. It also aids innovation and the generation of new ideas and can be used to introduce change management and get all stakeholders involved.

Five benefits of play in the workplace

Reduces stress

When we play, laugh and connect with others we release ‘feel good’ hormones that boost our mood and improve our sense of well being.

Helps develop and improve social skills

We can improve our communication skills, body language, cooperation, and teamwork skills through play.

Creates stronger relationships

Given we spend a lot of our waking hours with our coworkers, strengthening those bonds makes it easier to resolve conflict. Having meaningful relationships at work helps morale and means we look forward to going to work.

Decreases sick days

Play at work helps employees lead a more balanced life, and has been shown to decrease sickness.

Boosts productivity and creativity

When we play we allow ourselves to discover something new, and stimulate our imagination which also leads to better problem solving skills.

How to introduce play into business

It’s important to be mindful of different people in regard to the type of fun and play you decide to introduce. Some people have lost touch with their imagination and playful side or perhaps their childhood play wasn’t a good experience, so they might be reticent and resistant to playing. Organisations need to choose activities that appeal to different types of personalities. These might include creative or physical activities, ones involving risk taking, competition, bonding or team building and ones that stimulate laughter.

I offer organisations interactive workshops and training on the Business of Play, ranging from a one hour lunch and learn to a full day. If you’d like to know more about how to support your teams to have better communication and relationships and build their resilience then please get in touch, I’d love to share what’s possible.