How Children Can Teach Us to Play

Published On: March 8, 2023Categories: Blog

“The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression,” says Play expert Stuart Brown. Far too often, we think of play and work as being mutually exclusive concepts positioned on opposite ends of the same spectrum, and that’s why we so often hear from people that Play is the most difficult-to-grasp pillar of the FISH! Philosophy. But Play is not mutually exclusive from work; instead, it’s something that can be integrated into our workspaces and our work processes to help improve the quality of our ideas, our outputs, and our collaborative processes.

If you’re struggling to wrap your head around the idea of what Play looks like in the workplace, let’s remove the idea of “the workplace” entirely and take a step back to a time when Play was a natural way of being: childhood. Children are the ultimate experts in Play, and adults could learn a thing or two about it from them: after all, we all need to play, and humans (and animals!) that don’t play find themselves anxious and withdrawn. By looking at how children Play and how it helps childhood development, we can better learn how to integrate it into our adult lives.

Play expands our capabilities

We all know that our brains’ wiring is incredibly elastic during childhood, which is why children can so easily absorb new information and learn new things, and why this age is so important for our development. However, this neuroplasticity (the ability for our wiring to change) doesn’t go away as adults! It may be more difficult to rewire our brains, but it’s far from impossible.

As kids Play, they try new things, learn what they’re capable of, and their brains are literally rewired in the process. A study has found that if you teach children that their brains are always capable of learning new things, they respond with higher confidence, higher self-worth, and even higher grades in school.

So why can’t we do the same as adults? When we avoid Play, when we avoid tackling new ideas and trying new things, not only do our brains not rewire themselves with this new knowledge of our capabilities, but the pre-existing wiring is actually reinforced, further cementing our belief that we can’t keep learning. It may sound like an empty tautology, but when we push ourselves to learn new things, we become more capable of learning new things!

Play helps motivate us 

As adults, we so often structure rewards with things: that is, we associate rewards with money, prizes, awards, words of praise, etc. But material rewards only go so far in terms of being effective; at a certain point, they cease to be a powerful motivating factor–especially for creative challenges. In fact, when researchers did a study on college students, they found that material rewards actually produced poorer results when the students were tasked with creative pursuits (as opposed to more technical challenges).

Kids, on the other hand, are much more prone to viewing the process as its own reward. After all, when you were a child, you didn’t need to be motivated to Play, did you? Playtime wasn’t rewarding because you got a prize at the end; playtime was rewarding simply by the very nature of having the freedom to do as you pleased and to explore the world around you.

As organizations are increasingly focused on nurturing expansive, outside-the-box thinking, they’re finding that internal motivations are often more effective than material rewards. By creating space to Play, give us autonomy, and offer the chance to learn and develop new skills, a new generation of workers are finding themselves coming up with innovative new ideas rather than sticking to old and outdated modes of thinking.

Play allows us to experiment 

Ask any self-help guru or motivational speaker, and they’ll be the first to say that everyone learns from failure–every time we try something new and don’t succeed, we gain knowledge that makes us more likely to get it right the next time. And yet, so many of us are so deeply afraid of failing that we don’t even try new things, which leads us down the road to stagnation.

But have you ever watched children Play? By its very nature, Play sets us up for failure constantly. A child stacking blocks learns to balance them more delicately every time the tower falls over. Every time a child makes a playmate cry, they learn how to be more attuned to the needs and emotions of others. Every time a child makes up a game, they learn which rules make sense and which ones can’t be enforced. Failure is never ending, but children often don’t realize it–it’s just what Play is.

This need not change as adults, so long as we have organizations willing to support it. Many of us are afraid of failure because we’ve been trained that failure comes with consequences–getting something wrong means getting reprimanded, written up, or even fired. But if our organizations can create space for Play and make it clear that this space is meant for us to explore and grapple with new ideas, even if they don’t (immediately) work, then we’re giving space for the best new ideas to flourish through experimentation and iteration.

Play can’t be forced

Childhood play is generally defined as being both self-directed and voluntary. Nobody can tell us how to Play, and nobody can force us to do so. Either one of those violations makes playtime, well, not playtime. This can make the pillar of Play even more difficult to integrate into organizations, as often our first instinct is to make it a directed and structured activity.

However, if we instead consider Play to be a way of being and a way of thinking, we can integrate it naturally into everything else we do. It’s not about defining 10am as “playtime;” it’s about creating an organizational culture that promotes freedom and autonomy, values experimentation, and doesn’t punish failure–assuming we use it to grow and learn. That’s the true meaning of Play!

Ideas to Reflect On:

  • Think back to your childhood: What were your favorite playtime activities, and what made them so fun to you? What did you learn from them?
  • How does your organization encourage experimentation and creative thought? What’s one thing you can change to allow people more freedom to Play with new ideas?
  • How do you address failure within your organization? Are people punished when new ideas don’t work, or are they analyzed and talked-through to find useful lessons and takeaways?

Want to Implement FISH! in your organization?

Are you a leader?  Do you train others?  Do you want others to be leaders?

Charthouse Learning, the creator of the world-famous, award-winning, FISH! film is offering an in-person, 2-day workshop, interactive Train-the-Trainer lead by our Senior Trainer this April in Minneapolis, MN.

During our time together you’ll learn how to:

  • Share the motivation and foundation of FISH!
  • Introduce the FISH! film with the four practices.
  • Present the invitation to apply the practices in everyday interaction with others.
  • Build a sustainability and reinforcement program to transform the culture.
  • Pick up tips from other FISH! Philosophers and develop a strategy to embed the practices into the DNA of your culture.
  • Create an energized organization that is the “first choice” for employees, faculty, staff, leaders, and customers.

Plus, you will learn how to create a workplace where people choose to “be and bring” their best self everywhere, every day.

At the FISH! Train the Trainer you will:

  • Dive Deep: Discover The FISH! Philosophy – full of “A-ha!” takeaways and perspective-shifting realizations.
  • Transform: Make the four FISH! practices – Play, Be There, Make Their Day and Choose Your Attitude – an essential part of your professional and personal skill set.
  • Discover: Learn practical ways to apply the FISH! practices to improve teamwork, service, leadership, retention and performance.
  • Develop: Brainstorm strategies to embed The FISH! Philosophy into the DNA of your culture, strengthening your mission, vision and values.
  • Collaborate: Learn and laugh with like-minded folks from across the globe.

Click Here for More FISH! Train the Trainer Information

FISH! Executive Briefing

You have probably heard about the Culture Shift in the news. Organizations are struggling to find talent, employee morale is low, retention is a common goal and customers are dissatisfied with buying experiences.

These are all symptoms of an underlying challenge leadership is faced with every day, regardless of the industry. You can look for temporary relief or an overall, long-term cure.

Join us for a 60-minute webinar on the world-famous, award-winning FISH! practices.

Click Here for More FISH! Executive Briefing Information

Whether you work in business, education, or healthcare, FISH! offers accessible, intuitive solutions to empower your workers, bring your team together, and introduce Play into your organization. We invite you to contact us today at 800.695.4534 or to speak with our cultural specialists, who will help you find the right FISH! Philosophy solutions that will nurture your organizational culture and motivate your team!

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