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Learning to Play or Playing to Learn?

Updated: Oct 21, 2020

Some years ago I was asked to run a series of training courses for all the staff, managers and trustees of a large charity. I met the CEO to discuss the course and mentioned that I would use a collage-making activity early on in the day to identify and explore some of the key issues and her response was:

“But we’ll have senior managers and Board members on the course – I really don’t think that cutting and sticking is a suitable activity for them, do you?” My answer was “actually, yes, I do.”

I explained to her how collage-making is a whole brain activity involving visual imagery, physical activity, talking and listening, and organising ideas and how it breaks the ice, helps people talk about a difficult subject in a safe way, is a great leveller, and generates a rich discussion. Her response was a somewhat cynical “Well on your own head be it” - she clearly thought this was a BAD idea!

During the training, the collage-making was a great success. As a playful activity it created a real buzz and broke down any barriers between trustees, senior managers and junior staff – everyone was equal and everyone’s ideas and contributions were heard and discussed. The quality of the conversation and the power of the learning exceeded anything that would have taken place if I’d asked them to just write their ideas on flipchart paper. Many of the learners told me afterwards how much they enjoyed it, commenting that:

“we never get to do things like that any more”,

“although it was good fun, it was really productive”,

“I was able to be myself.”

I use play and playfulness in my training because I consider them to be essential elements in good learning, but I meet many people who feel that this is not a suitable approach for senior managers - they seem to think somehow that once we reach a certain age or position, the basic things which make us tick as human beings no longer apply. As George Bernard Shaw said:

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old - we grow old because we stop playing.”

Stuart Brown, a leading researcher into play, stresses that we have the capacity to play throughout our lifetime and that play is essential to human beings. Play is “activity that encourages positive emotions and allows people to get to know each other, learn about each other or engage in a mutual interest together, and is accompanied by smiling and laughter, autonomy, spontaneity and creativity” and includes physical play, object play, social play, construction play and imaginative play.

Play has a powerful effect on learning because it:

  • Boosts energy levels and vitality, reduces boredom and increases attentiveness.

  • Promotes a sense of calm, releases tension and increases well-being and happiness by triggering the release of endorphins (the body’s natural feel-good hormones).

  • Makes people feel safe, allows them to take risks, and to work through ideas and emotions in a creative, non-threatening way.

  • Stimulates the brain and improves perception, thinking, reasoning, problem solving and memory.

  • Boosts creativity by promoting curiosity, stimulating the imagination, encouraging improvisation and enabling exploration.

  • Improves relationships, promotes collaboration and co-operation, and fosters empathy, compassion, trust, and intimacy. “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation” (Plato)

  • Combines physical, mental, social and emotional activity simultaneously.

  • Helps people to think more flexibly and be more adaptable by encouraging them to explore possibilities and make appropriate choices.

  • Increases self-awareness by helping people to identify their strengths, talents and preferences and to try out different ways of using these.

  • Enhances self-confidence by disregarding differences in authority, experience, age or background and creating a level playing field where everyone has something valuable to contribute.

As trainers we should give all our learners the opportunity and permission to play - whatever their age, position, or level of authority.

My experience suggests that the problem isn’t with senior managers not giving themselves permission to play, but with the people who commission, design or deliver the training for them. I often meet Learning and Development Managers, HR managers, trainers and others who allow their own fears or preconceptions about what people will or won’t do to erode their confidence and prevent them from commissioning or delivering powerful, experiential, playful training. They shy away from using games and playful activities to generate learning, and instead of challenging the stereotypes about senior people and play they conform to them.

Our job as learning professionals is to change these preconceptions by offering reasons, opportunities, and encouragement to play. Our role is to take people on a journey of discovery to help them see and do things differently and this means embracing the power of play.

Here are my 6 key tips for building on the power of play:

  1. Explain the importance of play and share the neuroscientific evidence for this with training commissioners and learners of all levels so that they understand its role and value.

  2. Recognise that some people may need to learn to play before they can play to learn and create safe spaces and opportunities for them to do so.

  3. Be confident and enthusiastic when engaging learners in playful activities so that they are relaxed and reassured about taking part (introduce a playful activity in an anxious or apologetic way and learners will pick up on this and be uncomfortable with the activity.)

  4. Create a playful environment and atmosphere from the start with toys, images, colours and your own energy and enthusiasm.

  5. Be playful, adventurous, creative and brave – role modelling these behaviours will encourage and inspire learners to do the same.

  6. Attend a course with Playful Being, download the free e-book 'A Playful Path' by Bernard Koven, or visit Deep Fun if you need ideas and inspiration or help to unlock your own playful instincts

Finally, here is a comment from Anne – a senior manager at a large housing association who made a beautiful set of play-doh models during the course of one of my training days:

“I used to love making play-doh models with my children but these days I never just let go of myself and play. Today I’ve been able to let my barriers down, relax, and be creative and it’s really helped me to engage in the learning process. It’s also made me realise that I need to be more playful in my life both inside and outside work."
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