How to apply the principles of play to the workplace

Tuesday, June 20, 2017 - 15:51

By Rod Soper

Do you remember the freedom of play as a child? Do you remember the adventures of your play; all the crazy, eventful and exciting possibilities your play offered? Bouncing through a hopscotch game, throwing a ball to your dog or charging down the street on your bike.

Those play experiences changed you physically, emotionally and chemically as you took risks, pushed your ideas to their extreme sending endorphins charging through your body which set your imagination on fire thinking about your next adventure. For so many of us though we no longer have these sorts of life changing experiences and we have stopped being truly innovative thinkers and doers.

This impacts our capacity to be creative, innovative and lead change. As leaders, if we want something different in our businesses, we have to embrace change. The key is to start with our self and learn how to play with purpose.

The Paradox of Play: What we do know about play, for every person and at every age, it shapes the brain; it makes us smarter, adaptable and provides cognitive space for us to become adept at all kinds of problem-solving. At the core of play lies creativity and innovation (Brown, 2009).  One respected play researcher defines play as “a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly (Brown, 2009, p20).

Ultimately play is a catalyst for change and as such, every leader must be able to play and lead their teams to purposeful play if they want organisational change and innovation. The paradox, therefore, lies in the fact that a little bit of ‘seemingly nonproductive activity’ can make an enormous difference to the bottom line and to productivity due to the transformation of ideation when we play.

What Play Isn’t: If play activates ideas, creativity and innovative thinking then leaders cannot do without it in business, play simply cannot be mindless hours of nonsensical banter or purposelessness. It is however often outside of what we might know or call ‘normal’ experiences and activities (Brown, 2009). For example, for those in your company who are fitness fanatics going for a run with a group of colleagues while they consider a work challenge can often lead to new ideation, changed behaviour, new strategies and ways of being because of the play, i.e. the running.

These results aren’t the reason for the play, but due to change of the ‘normal work’ experience, what the body is experiencing and how the mind responds to these changes, new possibilities come into existence. 

Where We Want To Be: We want an organisation, which values play because of how it sculpts the brain. As an expression of this inherent value company policies should allow and encourage active play to be part of the company life. This is due to the well-researched facts that play stimulates the brain providing nerve growth, emotional intelligence, executive functioning and the development of the frontal cortex which is responsible for discriminating information, goal setting and general cognition.

For leaders, the organisational key to play is the ‘try it out’ factor. This purposeful play offers simulations for the brain to try out, imagine and play with situations we have never experienced before, therefore allowing possibilities and new cognitive connections to find a space and find a voice. As a result, we learn lessons and skills without being put directly at risk (Brown, 2009).

How Do We Get There: To create a culture of play in an organisation we need 6 elements according to one senior play historian from the Strong National Museum of Play (Eberle, 2016):

  • anticipation in order to develop curiosity and the exploration of risk
  • surprise in order to feel the unexpected or offer a shift in perspective
  • pleasure for the whole body experience
  • understanding in order to explore new possibilities
  • strength in order for mastery to be achieved and survival of risk
  • poise to maintain a sense of balance and place

When these 6 elements are at work in an organisation an environment where imaginative and new cognitive combinations are valued and in turn change the shape of who we are and what we produce.

One final insight for leaders who want to engage with play with purpose in their organisation is to be ready to embrace the unknown element of play. We will never know the outcome of play till it is complete, for by its nature play is ever changing. However, one thing is for sure; the outcome for purposeful play will always lead to something transformational and innovative. As leaders value play, cultural shifts can also become a real possibility and it is all due to play’s nature and power to deliver change.

With this in mind, it is time to become a player and take your challenges for a power walk on the beach, or a climb or to the lobby of a competitor and see what happens.

Rod Soper is the cofounder of Thinkers.inq Consulting and Principal at Thinkers.inq. Visit


Brown, S., 2009, Play, how it shapes the brain, opens the imagination and invigorates the soul. Carlton North, Victoria.

Eberle, S., The Elements of Play: Towards a Philosophy and Definition of Play in Journal of Play, Vol 6 number 2.