The Science of Play

Where Win-Win Comes From

As a kid who wasn’t allowed to watch television, the focus of my childhood was play. The games are too many to count. There was, for example, a little girl who lived in mirrorland and would possess me if I accidentally touched that shiny, reflective surface at night. She scared the heck out of my little sisters. Today, they say they knew all along it was a game, but I like to believe I had them fooled.

For better or worse, play changes when you’re an adult. I rarely engage in open-ended, exploratory, pretend-play. I can’t remember the last time I had a truly epic, long-lasting daydream. Even more regimented play, like board games, has become the exception instead of the rule.

Though it would be unrealistic to maintain play as a focus in adulthood, research increasingly points to the benefits of a playful spirit. Mirrorland may just get an encore.

Play and creativity

Mozart enjoyed pranks, Einstein’s most famous photograph includes his arched tongue, and the men who discovered DNA explain their process as playing with molecular models. Struck by the number of exceptionally creative thinkers who were also unusually playful, Dr. Patrick Bateson took to science to determine whether the linkage was more than coincidence.

He developed and released an online survey, asking people a series of questions to measure self-reported playfulness and creativity. In addition, participants were asked to list uses for a jar jam and paperclip. Lists were limited to ten answers. Some people answered only with the conventional use, while others went on to fill up ten possible uses. These lists were then used as a more objective measure of creativity. Both self-reported creativity and the list test corresponded with playfulness.

In another study, scientists turned to the biology of creativity. Using magnetic resonance imaging, they found that creative people had more gray matter volume in the right posterior middle temporal gyrus. Though several trait characteristics of creativity were examined, it was an openness to experience that mediated this structural shift.

The results are interesting, but not surprising. Playfulness is associated with openness and imagination, both essential for creativity. Many forms of play are, in and of themselves, creative endeavors..

Play and productivity

Though it wasn’t the attribute that Dr. Bateson studied, Mozart, Einstein, Watson, and Crick have something else in common. They were all incredibly productive, making major contributions to their fields.

Creativity is an important part of human progress and innovation, so it should come as little surprise that playfulness also has productivity benefits. Dr. Mary Ann Glynn and Dr. Jane Webster, two of the pioneers of play research in adults, set about developing an adult playfulness scale in the 1990s. Conducting five studies with over 300 participants, the research team found a positive correlation between playfulness, spontaneity, creativity, and work outcomes.

In part of the study, participants were prompted to complete a sentence construction task. When primed to treat the assignment as work, study participants were less likely to come up with creative answers. Those very same tasks, when approached playfully, resulted in more innovative sentences. The connection between play and productivity was further explored by Dr. René Proyer, who found that his playful students had higher grades than those who were less playful.

Social play strengthens relationships

Not all play is social, but social play has the added benefit of strengthening relationships. A 2016 study asked 47 participants to play the mirror game (not to be confused with the mirrorland game) with gender-matched expert players. An Adult Attachment Survey then assessed the quality of attachment achieved during the game. They found that those pairs who had pushed boundaries together had developed the securest attachments. This is in spite of having exhibited lower levels of synchronicity.

What does this mean in terms of play in our lives? Organized sports, board games, and ballroom dancing are a great place to start, but nothing beats open-ended play when it comes to building bonds.

Learning to play

Play takes place without ego, without purpose, and for its own sake. Becoming playful is a mindset. All it requires is a conscious commitment to approaching the world playfully, when appropriate. Your play is your own and it is okay if no one else gets it at first. I have been caught dancing in the supermarket aisles more than once. No one has ever been upset. Confused maybe, but not upset.

Once you’ve confidently infused play into your own life, try taking it social. Embrace openness to new experiences and humility. Humility is essential because initiating play is more than an invitation, it is a reveal. Play is vulnerable. You know that your child will be gleeful, but how might your business partner respond to an infusion of playfulness? Test the waters and find people who value play, but haven’t yet learned to initiate it. You will be doing all parties a favor.

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