Do we spend enough time playing? As adults, have we forgotten how to play? Have we in fact been conditioned to stop playing once we “grow up”?
Most of us would probably recognise that a lack of play during our childhood can have serious consequences for our psychological development. Dr. Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play makes the case that a lack of adult play has a negative impact both on our energy levels and on our mental well-being. Again, most people would appreciate that taking time out from our daily tasks and routine can lift our spirits and put us in a better frame of mind – it can also help us with problem-solving and creative thinking – but few of us make a conscious effort to schedule some dedicated and regular play activity into our day. (And I don’t mean simply spending an hour or two playing computer games.)
How we play is just as important as what we play with, and the type of play activity that engages us – in short, we are what we play. So the absence of any play may suggest something is missing in our lives.
When I was a child, some of my favourite toys enabled me to design and build things, to construct working models with clockwork and electric motors, to assemble, disassemble and re-assemble simple electronic circuits for radios, light-operated switches and walkie-talkies. I even built a rudimentary synthesizer using parts stripped from an old TV set, and a keyboard made from an ice cream tin. OK, so I wasn’t going to get a gig with Kraftwerk, but I did learn about capacitors, resistors, transistors, diodes, rheostats, transformers and relays, even if I couldn’t get a recognizable tune out of the instrument itself.
This avid curiosity about how things work once caused me to take apart a clockwork motor, which I was then unable to get to work again. My father, an engineer, simply said, “Never take something apart unless you know how to put it back together”, sage advice which is helpful even today in my role as a strategist, executive coach and business consultant.
I would suggest that there is a link between abandoning play in adulthood and a growing lack of curiosity about how things actually work once we get older, coupled with our increasing passivity towards new technology. For example, how many of us would know (or care) how to repair simple mechanical or electrical appliances in our homes?
While there has been an understandable effort aimed at encouraging children to learn how to write code, this emphasis on software comes at the expense of learning how machines work, how hardware is designed, how electronic and mechanical components combine together. This software bias has prompted a team of educationalists to launch the Bigshot digital camera kit designed to help children learn through play by making a real digital camera, and to understand the relationship between software and hardware. Others are teaching summer schools that combine software programming with engineering and robotics – but the broader goal is to develop problem-solving, logic, comprehension and reasoning skills.
Our pursuit of creative or constructive play in adulthood is not helped by the obsession designers and manufacturers have with producing “sealed units” – hardware that comes with “no user serviceable parts inside”*. Even if we succeeded in taking the back off a gadget and having a look inside, it would probably invalidate the warranty and extinguish our consumer protection rights.
If we don’t understand how the things we use are designed to work, how can we tell if something is wrong, how can we learn to improve them, how can we find new ways of using them?
Smart companies and organizations understand the importance of learning through play and actively encourage their people to spend time “playing” – either through the pursuit of pet projects, or through creative, collaborative and social activities designed to instil innovation and fresh thinking.
As such, I’m very interested to hear from organizations that incorporate “play” into their regular activities, to understand why and how they do it, and to learn about the outcomes and benefits it delivers. I can be contacted via this blog, LinkedIn or Twitter.
*Note: Software is often just as bad with so-called “default” settings that get in the way of our ability to play around with and explore the programs we use.