Craving Play at Work? Make a Play List!

It was still dark outside and my kids were asleep.  Time for another international video call with my peers on the leadership team.  I put on a sweatshirt and tied my hair back but left my pajama pants on.  No one would see them under the dining room table where I sat.  Shower and makeup could happen later.  As people signed on, I noticed the pile of bows and ribbons on the table from the previous night’s birthday celebration and chided myself for not being a better housekeeper.  And then, because it felt playfully authentic, I stuck one of the bows on my head and waited for my colleagues to notice.

Okay, a little more context might be helpful.  This was a weekly call and the participants were my dear and trusted friends.  In this team, for over a year now, I had felt supported to show show up exactly as I was feeling - deliriously jet lagged or irritated about an unnecessary meeting or self-righteous about some situation that I would see differently in 30 minutes.  There was also space for me to be silly … but I knew I was pushing the edge this time.  

So what was the result?  By the end of the meeting, the bow had been replaced by a green headband, purple plastic tiara, and some fascinating piece of artwork my daughter created using beads and pipe cleaners.  I felt lighter and happier.  Giving my friends a chance to laugh with me made me feel connected and generous.  I saw more possibilities for enjoyment when I reviewed my very full schedule for the day.  Would I have done this during a call where I needed to channel my energy for a fierce negotiation? No.  Would I have done this with someone I was meeting for the first time?  No.  Will I do something like this in the future?  Absolutely.

“The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression.” Brian Sutton-Smith

Play is incredibly important for adults.  My favorite scientific expert on play is Stuart Brown, MD.  In addition to being an author and a psychiatrist, he is the founder of the National Institute for Play.  He wrote that play is “... all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing.”  Research has demonstrated the numerous benefits of play at work, from higher employee morale and engagement to creative problems solving and increased collaboration.  While I know this intellectually, it can feel counterintuitive to make time to play when it feels like there aren't enough hours in the day.  In those moments when I feel overwhelmed, I sometimes can't think of a single thing that feels playful to me.  So I bring out my list of fun activities.  Here are a few examples from my Play List:

  • Have lunch or a quick call with a colleague/friend/family member who is amused by the same situations I am. Blow off steam by describing a recent time when I got stuck feeling “right” and laugh at myself with them.

  • Ask the next person I am meeting with 1:1 if they would like to take a walk outside while we talk.

  • Go to the park and get on a swing. This is one of the quickest personalized ways I can drop in to feeling like a kid and letting go of the need to control. This can happen at the end of the day or during a break when I’m working from home.

  • Get curious about how I can turn a problem at work into a game. One of my favorite ways is collaborating with my team to brainstorm ridiculous solutions that would never work as a creative way to access a new perspective.

  • Doodle in a journal or notebook with colored markers or crayons

  • Make agreements with myself for fun rewards that will reconnect me with my body. “If I finish this spreadsheet/slide deck/document review, I can walk outside on the grass with my shoes off for 5 minutes or give myself a hand massage with the lotion in my purse or stretch in a conference room or savor a delicious cup of tea in my favorite mug.”

  • Find an empty conference room. Close the door. Turn on some music and dance!

What are some ways you have found to play at work?  What do you notice about the companies that incorporate play in their culture?  What stories do you tell yourself about why play may not be appropriate?

I don’t think it is too much to say that play can save your life. It certainly has salvaged mine. Life without play is a grinding, mechanical existence organized around doing the things necessary for survival. Play is the stick that stirs the drink. It is the basis of all art, games, books, sports, movies, fashion, fun, and wonder—in short, the basis of what we think of as civilization. Play is the vital essence of life. It is what makes life lively.
— Stuart Brown, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul