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Whatever happened to unbridled joy in our daily lives? Remember the fun of play as children? Nearly everyone starts out playing quite naturally, with whatever’s available. We makeup rules, invent games with playmates, fantasize, and imagine mysteries and treasures. Have we lost playfulness on our leadership journey?

Maybe we need to renew ourselves as leaders and start playing more. Something happens as we become working adults: we shift our priorities into organized, competitive, goal-directed activities. If an activity doesn’t teach us a skill, make us money, or further our social relationships, we don’t want to waste time being nonproductive.

Sometimes, the sheer demands of daily living and family responsibilities seem to rob us of the ability to play.

“I have found that remembering what play is all about and making it part of our daily lives are probably the most important factors in being a fulfilled human being. The ability to play is critical to being happy, sustaining social relationships, and being a creative, innovative person.” ~ Stuart Brown, MD, author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, Penguin Books, 2009.

Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, presents his ideas in this TED TV video: Play Is More than Fun. Sprinkled with anecdotes demonstrating the play habits of subjects from polar bears to corporate CEOs, Brown promotes play at every age while defining it thus:

Play is an absorbing, apparently purposeless activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of self-consciousness and sense of time. It is also self-motivating and makes you want to do it again.

We tend to underestimate the power of play. Imagine a world without it – not only the absence of games or sports, but the absence of movies, arts, music, jokes, and dramatic stories. No daydreaming, no teasing, no flirting. Play lifts people from the mundane routine and offers a means to find joy in even the little things.

Studies show that play provides a survival advantage in the wild. Young animals learn skills and social rules when they engage in rough and tumble-play-fighting. Those who play the most grow neurons and develop more robust mental and physical stamina.

Humans, of course, also benefit from play, but not only as children and adolescents. In older adults, those who engage in the most cognitive activity (puzzles, reading, engaging in mentally challenging work) have a 63 percent lower chance of getting Alzheimer’s disease than the general population.

Adults who continue to explore and learn throughout life are less prone to dementia and less likely to get heart disease. The people who stay sharp and interesting as they age are the ones who continue to play and work.

When we stop playing, we stop growing– and we begin dying. Our energy for leadership vanishes. 

Work vs. Play

The opposite of work is not play. Play and work are mutually supportive. Yet, most of us have learned to be serious regarding our careers. We squelch our natural drive to have fun.

Neither is play the enemy of work; one cannot thrive without the other. We need the newness of play:  the sense of flow, imagination, and energy of being in the moment that play provides.

We also need the purpose of work, the economic stability it provides, the sense of meaning and competence. The quality that work and play have in common is creativity. In both, we are creating new relationships, skills, and situations.

An overwhelming sense of responsibility and competitiveness can often bury our inherent need for variety and challenge. We eventually succumb to stress and burnout if we deny our need to play. Recognizing our biological need for play can transform our work life.

Play helps us deal with difficulties, handle challenges, and tolerate routines and emotions such as boredom or frustration. Play provides a sense of expansiveness, promotes mastery, and is vital to the creative process.

Play at Work

It’s obvious that playing outside of work  ̶ through sports, games, family activities, and community functions – is essential. What is less obvious is our need to play at work as we work. Play – as we work – can energize us, help us to see new patterns, spark curiosity, and trigger ideas and innovation.

Play helps us deal with work problems. What kind of play is appropriate at work? You don’t have to engage in off-site team-building games to play at work, although those are occasionally beneficial.

A playful attitude gives people the emotional distance to rally. Often, the problem is not the problem; it’s how we react to the problem.

Play is a lubricant that allows individuals to be close to one another. When we play, we don’t put up defensive walls; we accept others as they are. We have a responsibility to play fair.  When our interactions are based on a foundation of caring, we avoid hurting others.

Play enables cooperative socialization and nourishes trust, empathy, caring, and sharing. Perhaps one of the biggest advantages to those with a playful mindset is that it stimulates creativity. Playfulness leads to imagination, inventiveness, and dreams – which help us think up new solutions to problems.

Play allows us to attain a higher level of existence, new levels of mastery, imagination, and culture. When we play right, all areas of our lives go better. When we ignore play, we start having problems. ~ Stuart Brown, MD, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul.

What are you doing to instill play in your workplace? I would like to hear from you. Send me an email at

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Inscape Consulting Group
Greg Nichvalodoff, BSc. BM (Honors), MBA, PCC, CMC
Office: 604.943.0800
Mobile: 604.831.4734