What Happened to Play?

Do you remember the days when you stayed outside all day to play? Whether it was riding your bike or swimming, playing hide and seek, kick the can, wiffle ball, or other games with neighborhood friends, there was plenty to do and not enough hours to get it all done. You only came in when it was time to eat supper or to get a big drink of water.  

Do you remember staying out after dark on those late summer evenings? Lying on the grass, looking at the stars, and telling scary stories? Those times usually came a few days before going back to school where you would join another set of friends for learning and play.  

What happened to those days? The days when it was normal to play. When we made up games and used our imaginations to experience worlds limited only by what we could invent in our minds.

Shifting from Play to Work

Honestly, I think those days are still with us. But something happens when we become adults. We shift our priorities into organized, competitive, goal-directed activities. If an activity doesn’t teach us a skill, make us money, or further our social connections, we see it as frivolous or nonproductive.

Even the demands of daily living and family responsibilities seem to rob us of the ability to play.  Yet, it is often members of the family who desire our play more than anyone else. 

Maybe it is time to renew ourselves as leaders and start playing more.  Maybe the time has come to incorporate play into everything we do.  Now, my intention is not to add play to an overcrowded schedule of activities, but to integrate play into those activities. 

Stuart Brown in his book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, writes, “I have found that remembering what play is all about and making it part of our daily lives are probably the most important factors in being a fulfilled human being. The ability to play is critical not only to being happy, but also to sustaining social relationships and being a creative, innovative person.

Brown, the founder of the National Institute for Play, writes, “Play is an absorbing, apparently purposeless activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of self-consciousness and sense of time. It is also self-motivating and makes you want to do it again.”

What Happens Without Play

We tend to underestimate the power of play. Imagine a world without it. There would be no games or sports. No movies, music, jokes, or dramatic stories. No daydreaming, no teasing, no flirting. We would be without the one thing that lifts us out of the routine of the mundane and offers a means of joy in the little things.

According to Brown, adults who continue to explore and learn throughout life, who engage in an intentional cognitive activity like puzzles, word games, reading, etc., are less susceptible to dementia and less likely to get heart disease. The people who stay sharp and interesting as they age are the ones who continue to play at work.

Integrating Play and Work

When we stop playing, we stop growing, and our energy for life and for leadership vanishes. So, what are we to do? To help you become the leader you have been created to be, reflect on the following:  

  • Play and work are mutually supportive. Play is neither the opposite of work nor is playing the enemy of work. One cannot thrive without the other. 
  • As important as your work is, play is just as important. You have learned to be serious when it comes to work. But the sense of flow, imagination, and energy of being in the moment is often time provided by play. Don’t squelch the fun of work. 
  • The quality that work and play have in common is creativity. In both, you are creating new relationships, skills, and situations. Too often, an overwhelming sense of responsibility and competitiveness buries your need for variety and challenge. Recognizing your need for play will transform your work life.
  • Play helps you deal with difficulties, handle challenges, and tolerate routines and emotions such as boredom or frustration. Play provides what is needed for the creative process.

Ideas to Integrate Play and Work

Here are a few ideas for incorporating play into your leadership. You’ll notice none of them require having a pool table, workout room, or playing silly games. It’s simply about recognizing what is enjoyable, interesting, and part of your team culture.

  • When someone has a birthday, splurge and buy party hats. Or, make it a habit to sing happy birthday to a different tune for each birthday.
  • Leave an encouraging note on a colleague’s desk written on fun paper.
  • Decorate a cubicle with diapers and containers of baby wipes for the new parent on your team.
  • Ask someone what made them laugh in the last 24 hours. You’ll likely be laughing right along with them.
  • Host a themed potluck lunch (Mexican, Italian, dessert only, etc)
  • Take a 15-minute stress break – go outside for a walk together, toss a football or baseball on the green space, challenge teams to a water balloon toss, stand up & stretch and share a win for the day without saying the project you’re working on.
  • Pass a card around that says “High Five.” When it arrives on your desk, it’s your turn to celebrate the good work you’ve witnessed in someone else.
  • Turn on music and dance.

As you can see, there are things you can do to have fun that do not cost money. Obviously, that list isn’t exhaustive. Add to the list by reflecting on the culture, interests, and passions of the people you’re leading. Laugh, relax, and have fun together. Most of all, don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be – it will ruin the fun!

Why Play?

I think most of us would agree that play outside of work is essential.  That is why some of you would say, “I work hard, and I play hard.” Whether it be sports, games, family activities, or community functions, we give it our all. What we might not agree upon is our need to integrate play into our work. Play, as a part of work, energizes, helps us to see new patterns, sparks curiosity, and encourages new directions.

Play also:

•Helps us deal with work problems. A playful attitude gives people emotional distance to see the reality of situations and issues and the space to respond appropriately.  

•Brings us closer to one another. It provides an opportunity to be authentic, to accept others for who they are, and to act fairly. When our interactions are based on a foundation of caring, we learn to work for the good of others. 

•Facilitates cooperative socialization and nourishes trust, empathy, caring, and sharing.  Playfulness leads to imagination, inventiveness, and dreams. It is in the midst of playfulness we often discover new solutions to problems.

Stuart Brown writes, “Play is what allows us to attain a higher level of existence, new levels of mastery, imagination, and culture. When we play right, all areas of our lives go better. When we ignore play, we start having problems.”

Play and Work

If the only image that’s coming into your mind is a pool table, workout room, or silly games, let me

Your Turn

What might you do to incorporate a little play into your leadership? In whatever form play might take for you, become the courageous and effective leader you are created to be. Remember, who you are is how you lead.  

When you need and want assistance, remember that Sara Thomas and I are with you on your leadership journey. When we can be of encouragement or help, contact us at connect@transformingmission.org. We are ready to assist you with insights and resources in becoming a courageous leader. 

Check out LeaderCast. This week Sara Thomas and I talk about “play.” Tune in and listen to Episode 186: Why Play? To become a regular LeaderCast listener, subscribe and receive a new episode each week as well as catch up on past episodes. LeaderCast is one resource you will want to have as you navigate the leadership challenges of 2021. 

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