The importance of play

neon sign with words work & play

Consciously making time to play is something that we tend to leave at the door of childhood. After all, we grow up, leaving the technicolour memories of sandcastles, climbing frames and paint pots behind us. We enter the black-and-white world of spreadsheets and taxes with a weary sigh. You must have heard the saying, ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’, but how can you play when faced with the workload of a modern employee? Well, work and life don’t have to be opposites anymore: it doesn’t have to be boring vs fun, or tired vs energetic. Enter the magnificent world of play at work.

Play is universal. We see it across cultures and across history. Archaeologists are finding out more and more about how play looked in our ancient history – in fact, researchers recently discovered a 4,000 year old board game similar to backgammon. And, in today’s world, play for adults is on the rise. People in their twenties, thirties and forties have, for the first time, overtaken children as the primary consumer demographic of video games. Escape rooms are now the UK’s most sought after attraction, and the host of an online pub quiz recently earned an MBE for his services to the UK during lockdown. We’re turning to play to help us get through this seismic change in how we live – so, surely it can help us at work too.Â

Play is Everywhere

More and more companies are starting to wake up to the importance of play at work and its many benefits. Take a look at Google’s offices: basketball courts, mini-golf and scooters are the more obvious forms of play, but there’s also lots of playful imagery like giant binoculars and a meeting room decorated like a tunnel. Imagine the feelings this sort of imagery would incite – the excitement, the novelty, and the fun – and how those feelings could impact employee motivation, productivity and creativity.

It follows that play doesn’t necessarily need to be part of a game – in fact, you might already have more play in your life than you realise. Whilst some people might enjoy more structured games like a 5-a-side football match, perhaps instead mobile phone games are your go-to on long train journeys. You might like to do the crossword in the Sunday papers, or play peek-a-boo with your toddler. Whatever play looks like for you, it’s important that we don’t categorise it as something that only ever happens in stand-alone episodes. Leading researcher into play, Dave Neale, explains that play can also be an interaction. It can be simply having a playful mindset or approach to something, and this is where we can really start to see play at work.

The Benefits of Play at Work

Researchers are finding more and more benefits of play at work. It turns out that play:

Reduces stress

Several studies (including Magnuson & Barnett and Russoniello & O’Brien ) have demonstrated that play reduces cortisol and releases endorphins, helping us to manage the stresses of everyday life. If this is a case, then opportunities for playfulness could form a sizeable part of wellbeing strategies going forwards.

Builds relationships

Games where we share objectives with our colleagues (or even those with a friendly bit of competition!) are a great way of socialising, and even simply joking with each other can help to build rapport. We know that employees are ten times more likely to stay in their job for friendships than a pay rise, which means that this benefit of play could have wider implications in terms of retention.Â

Stimulates creativity

Over time, scientists have discovered that playfulness can enhance creative thinking. For example, West et al conducted a study into meetings at work, comparing those with play cues (such as simple games or childhood sweets) and those without. They found that the meetings held in a play-cued condition had a significant increase in productivity, playfulness and creativity – this could be great news for our approach to innovation and problem-solving.

Encourages laughter

It’s inevitable that playfulness leads to laughter (even when the joke is terrible!), and laughter is itself proving to have a whole host of benefits on our health, wellbeing, and at work. In fact, a study by Oswald et al found that laughing boosted the productivity of their participants by up to 12%!

Improves productivity

Perhaps the biggest concern we might have around intentional play is that it takes time away from work and our ever-growing to-do list. However, research have shown that incorporating playfulness can actually have the opposite effect, in one study increasing productivity by 20%.

The list continues, and it’s clear that these benefits have the potential to have an enormous impact on our working lives. But what about the wonderful world of learning and development? Can we reap the rewards of play too?

We all know that as children, we learn through play without even trying. Our early years are filled with exploration, discovery and trial-and-error as our brains develop at a rapid rate. But, although we have an overwhelming wealth of evidence supporting learning through play for children, the field of research into play in Learning and Development hasn’t quite caught up yet. Nevertheless, a doctoral study  found that play and playfulness in the higher education and adult classroom led to increases in engagement, retention and understanding. And, perhaps most significantly, it created a learning environment that felt safe and encouraged risk taking. This could have real implications for creating psychological safety, which is so important in the world of virtual training.Â

More Playful Approach

So, let’s position ourselves ahead of the curve and champion this brave new world of play at work. Let’s embrace a playful approach towards our working lives and see the world through a more jovial pair of eyes. Let’s use play to support our wellbeing, stimulate our imagination and engage our learners. If you would like some advice on how to bring play into your learning and development, get in touch, we’d love to help!

More of our latest news