Use the Science of Play to Transform Your Workplace

Use the Science of Play to Transform Your Workplace

Image: Henri Matisse, Dance (II), 1910, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia, [Public Domain] via WikiArt.org

As modern companies focus on systems, outcomes and corporate accountability, creativity remains elusive. But innovative companies want creative teams. Although we live in a culture that firmly separates work from play, current neuroscience research requires us to take a second look. Stepping back from work – partaking in playful engagement or exploration – is essential to innovative thinking, energy, empathy, individuality – and to our very nature as human beings.

August Macke_Colour Circle

August Macke, Colour Circle, [Public Domain] via WikiArt.org

Recently, I discovered that digital gamers embrace a classic book about play called Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (1938) by Dutch philosopher Johan Huizinga. Huizinga says that play is at the center of everything in human culture, and that it happens within what he called a magic circle. Although Huizinga could not have imagined the world of digital games, he described the magic circle as a temporary world within the ordinary world where people play by special rules and engage in pleasurable activities that ignite the imagination.

Whether an arena, a card-table, the stage or the tennis court, Huizinga’s magic circle is a “play-ground where the customary differences of rank are temporarily abolished. Whoever steps inside, it is sacrosanct for the time being.” In the modern workplace, we might see magic circles as safe spaces where people come together as equals from a variety of backgrounds and roles to engage in a relaxed, companionable activity unrelated to work.

Play researcher Stuart Brown [Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul] tells us that “play sets the stage for cooperative socialization. It nourishes the roots of trust, empathy, caring, and sharing.” It certainly improves communication, easing serious conversation through light-hearted teasing or joking. People get to know each other through play. It changes the very nature of their interactions and builds a sense of belonging.

Books@Work participants experience the very elements of Huizinga’s magic circle and Brown’s cooperative socialization. While not “play” in the sense of a ping-pong game or a mindless activity, Books@Work sessions allow participants to shed the stress of the workplace and engage each other in exciting, creative and invigorating discussion. Participants frequently refer to the pleasure they experience in sessions precisely because they are a break from the ordinary. Books@Work discussions have separate “rules” that differ from the constraints of the work day. They offer an opportunity to learn about others in new ways. Participants reveal more of themselves and gradually develop relationships that leave them eager for the next session.

“I think it’s interesting to put the working relationships on hold and have an outlet to talk to people on equal footing about something that’s not work-related,” one participant on a leadership team shared. “I think it does enhance work and assist working relationships. You see people as more human.” Another participant in the same program emphasized the joy of the program. “It’s a good stress reliever. I really, really enjoy it. I would do it more if I could. We all have laughs at it too. It’s a good place to just chill and speak your mind and have fun.”

Play springs forth in a wide variety of ways. People play with ideas. They make music together. They share stories and discuss books and short stories. They move their bodies in dance or sport. They experience each other’s essential humanity. As we seek to shape workplace learning and culture in the 21st century, we cannot ignore the value, the creativity and the human fulfillment of play.

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Karen Nestor

Karen Nestor

In more than four decades as an educator, Karen has taught at every level from early childhood through graduate school. She recently completed a doctorate in human and organizational learning, with a focus on how people repeatedly reshape their lives throughout the lifespan.  Karen is a member of the Board of That Can Be Me, Inc., the facilitator of Books@Work.