Playfulness and Creativity

Our Environment – Our Attitude

Many Fortune 500 Companies have creative workplaces today designed to help people feel relaxed: familiar with their surroundings, comfortable with the people that they’re working with. It takes more than decor, but creative companies often have symbols in the workplace that remind people to be playful, and that it’s an environment where it’s ok to take risks. Pixar animators work in wooden huts and decorated caves; Googleplex, is famous for its [beach] volleyball courts, massive dinosaur skeleton with pink flamingos on it.

 Some companies keep various toys on hand. Why so?

Google offices look more like a play room!

Google offices look more like a play room!

Because they consider playfulness to be important. They found playfulness helps workers get to better creative solutions feel better about doing their jobs.

The boyish pranks and wild play didn’t just pump up the team. They also created an atmosphere where you naturally took chances and solved problems. You could stumble, as long as you fell forward. ”

Thomas Kelley with Jonathan Littman. “The Art of Innovation.”

What causes us to lose our playfulness?  

An adult encountering a new situation tends to want to categorize things as quickly as possible. Evolutionary biologists have a theory of why we want to categorize new things very, very quickly.

1. Back in the caveman days, seeing something we couldn’t quite make out in the bushes, perhaps asked themselves – was it a tiger just about to jump out and kill us? Or is it just some weird shadows on the tree? Back in those days we needed to figure out things pretty quickly.

Kids are more engaged with open possibilities. When they come across something new, they’ll probably ask, “What is it?” But they’ll also ask, “What can I do with it?” This openness is the beginning of exploratory play. The reason kids sometimes enjoy playing with the box a toy came in than the toy itself.  The toy has finite possibilities, not so with a box!

And then the sad thing is, although preschools are full of this kind of stuff, as kids go through the school system it all gets taken away. They lose this stuff that facilitates this sort of playful and building mode of thinking. And of course, by the time you get to the average workplace, there’s the minimal amount of playful materials around the office!

Playful exploration, playful building are some of the ways that creative people use play in their work. And of course improvisation and other alternative invite creative play.

Children at play!

Children at play!

1.Play does not have to be anarchy. especially in groups. When kids play tea party, or they play cops and robbers, they’re following a script that they’ve agreed to. This code negotiation leads to productive play.

2. Kids don’t play all the time. They transition in and out of it, and good teachers spend a lot of time thinking about how to move kids through these experiences.

States of play and seriousness are not absolutes and we may go in and out of these sates.  It’s possible to be a serious professional adult and, at times, be playful. You can be serious and play. But we do need trust playfulness.


While it seems reasonable that solving a problem requires concentrated effort, 3M (known for post its, scotch tape and numerous other products) encourages employees to do activities that may seem unproductive like taking a walk, lying down on a couch by a sunny window, etc.

Joydeep Bhattacharya, a psychologist at University of London discovered that during relaxed, unscripted moments, there is a predictive signal in the brain and it is a steady stream of alpha waves emanating from the right brain hemisphere.

 When those alpha waves are streaming through our brain, we’re more likely to direct our attention inward rather than outward, towards the stream of remote associations emanating from the right hemisphere. (remember juliet and the sun!) In contrast when we are directly focused on something, we tend to look at the details of the problem we’re trying to solve. While this is important to do for analyzing problems technically, but it also prevents from making the kinds of connections that lead to insights!

 And this playfulness exploration, which is about going for quantity; building, and thinking with your hands; and role-play, where acting it out helps us both to have more empathy for the situations in which we’re creating to create experiences that are seamless and authentic.

Rozanna Weinberger

Louisville Kentucky, 3/6/14

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