Adulthood and the importance of play: a gateway for Design
I’ve never seen a public servant swinging between tree branches before work, or a couple of lawyers wrestling on the grass by the university. Something about becoming an adult tells us not to play. But it turns out, play is just as important for the development adults as it is for children. And for designers, it’s not just important but an essential gateway into how we work, how we think, and how we relate.
When you’re a child, climbing, running, jumping and playing are your raison d’etre. Play is central to your physical, mental, social and emotional health, a biological drive that is so universally identifiable that the right of a child to play is protected by international law. The absence of play in childhood has been linked to inability to problem-solve and higher rates of anti-social behaviour and violence.
As we grow in to adults, we’re supposed to stop playing all of a sudden. Play starts to be dismissed as an unproductive and guilty pleasure that distracts us from the seriousness of our very serious businesses. Play becomes less and less justifiable, buried deep in a sandpit of bills, jobs and professional aspirations. But play is just as important for adults in building relationships, unlocking creativity and solving problems.
What is play?
What is and isn’t play can be difficult to put your finger on. Play isn’t a ‘thing’ that you can touch or see; it is a process that you feel. Dr Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist who has studied over 6,000 case studies of play, talks about it as a ‘state of being’ that is purposeless, fun and pleasurable. You can move in and out of it without making a conscious effort, and without noticing. It is a process that focuses on the actual experience rather than on a particular goal.
Play centres on this idea of activity for its own inherent enjoyment. While the kind of play that we honour is usually competitive play, it also takes many uncompetitive forms: talking to your dog, painting a picture, kicking a ball or climbing a tree. Play arises as a result of curiosity and exploration. It can manifest itself in random ways, like wondering where those birds in the park have come from or are going, or walking aimlessly through the alleyways of a new city. Play can be deeply imaginative and creative.
Why is it important for designers?
Play brings joy. It is vital for building relationships with our peers and clients, and it facilitates the building of deep connection, cultivates trust, heals broken relationships, and builds empathy for one other. The basis of human trust is established through vocal and physical play signals, but as we grow older and become more socialised, we begin to hide those signals. Despite our best efforts, humans remain one of the most highly neotenous of all species i.e. we retain a high level of immature (playful) characteristics into adulthood. Anyone who has been playing Pokémon Go over the last few weeks has probably experienced this phenomenon bubble to the surface when they’ve locked eyes with another player on the street. There is a sense of commonality and, as a result, trust. This retention of neoteny is a great explanation for why we have been able to be so adaptive and so curious throughout history.
Play is also vital for problem solving and creativity. A state of play allows you to explore the possible and think outside of normal parameters. In the past this concept has manifested itself in the idea of unrestricted brainstorming (‘any idea goes!’). At its core, it not only enables but boosts expansive divergence. It has even made its way into the curriculum of Stanford’s d.school in their unit ‘From play to innovation’ and has made its place clear in the playful environment of both rising start-ups and multi-billion dollar silicon valley disruptors.
To include play in your thinking about problem solving, creativity, design and innovation opens a whole new toolbox beyond just the Marshmallow Game. So don’t wait! Start incorporating storytelling, music, building and creation, role playing, gaming, drawing and all sorts of play throughout your working day, in the office, with clients and at home, and explore the effects it has!