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Working Better Podcast

Episode 9

Working Better Podcast Series

Are We Forgetting How to Play?

Play makes us more creative, more connected to one another, and more likely to find new solutions to old problems. But are we forgetting how to? In the latest episode of Working Better, we unpack the power of play with perspectives from researchers, designers and business leaders - including a deep dive with Dr. Bo Stjerne Thomsen from the LEGO Foundation!

 

You can listen and subscribe to Working Better in your favorite app Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts.

Featuring:

  • Dave Clark - Senior Director of Service Design and Digital Strategy, Kin + Carta 
  • Lauren Blackburn - Senior UX Design Consultant, Kin +Carta
  • Brian Burkhart - Founder, Chief Word Guy, SquarePlanet
  • Bo Stjerne Thomsen Chair of Learning through Play, Vice-President, LEGO Foundation

Credits:

  • Produced, written and edited by Maxx Parcell.
  • Sound engineering by Chris Mitchell
  • Music by Luc Parcell
  • Additional editing support by Ashley Higuchi
  • Production support by Belen Battisti

Show Notes

(00:00) Are we Forgetting How to Play?

In 1985, the Washington Redskins, now known as the Washington Football Team, sold out every game. Tickets were in such hot demand, fans spent 25 years on the waiting list. A TV station called Flagship International Sports Television took a novel approach. They sent invitations to a random list of lucky fans to come to a game for free, signed by the owner I. M. Detnaw.

When they arrived they were treated like royalty - cheerleaders and team mascots introduced them to the head of marketing, who said, “Ladies and gentleman, we’ve got a special surprise for you….you’re all under arrest.”

Doors burst open, armed police rush in... The whole thing was a sting operation. The list wasn’t random, they were all fugitives from the law. And they weren’t cheerleaders, mascots, and marketing executives. They were all US Marshals. The operation was as successful as it was unconventional. 101 criminals wanted for murder, assault and robbery were arrested, at a fraction of the usual cost of pursuing a fugutive.

What made it so effective? Police had fun with it. They played. They had fun in their designated roles. They played with the details that might have seemed frivolous but actually made a difference. Flagship International Sports Television, the fictional TV station, were the initials of the police group FIST - Fugitive Investigative Strike Team. Not to be confused with the “Federation of InterState Truckers” from the Sylvester Stallone movie of the same name. The owner I. M. Detnaw? An anagram of I. M. Wanted. The business manager each fugitive first spoke to about the free tickets was Markus Cran, C-r-a-n. Narc, spelled backwards. The cheerleaders were female US Marshals, greeting the fugitives with a pat down disguised as a hug.

(01:50)The Impact of Play

The story was the subject of an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary, and has been written about in books like Dave Trott’s Creative Blindness. It was even used as an opening plot device in the Simpsons where Chief Wiggum targets people with unpaid parking tickets by telling them they won a raffle for a speedboat. Hmmmm. Speedboat.

While perhaps an unlikely source of inspiration, the US Marshals effort is a perfect example of why PLAY is so powerful. Play helps us learn, it makes us more creative, more cooperative, and more likely to find happiness. Play makes us more likely to find novel solutions to problems. It’s as fundamental to our biology as the need to sleep or eat, yet it’s increasingly being deprioritized, in both childhood and adulthood.

Why is it so important to play? Are we forgetting how to play? How do we bring a playful mindset to our work, like the US Marshals did? This week we’ve pulled together stories from play experts, business leaders, artists, designers, and creators to help us answer these questions. Including a 1 on 1 interview with Dr. Bo Stjerne Thomsen the Chair of Learning Through Play at the LEGO Foundation. Yes. LEGO. Friend to children. Enemy to bare feet. Don’t miss it!

I’m not as talented as Rashida Jones or as smart as Bill Gates but I am Scott Hermes.

This is Working Better.

(03:20) 7 Principles of Play

What is play? The short answer is, it’s more than you might think. 

Stuart Brown is the founder of the National Institute for Play and the Author of “Play”, a definitive work in the world of Play research. Stuart Brown calls Play “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.” Damn. That is a lot of responsibility for something that is supposed to be fun.

Stuart Brown was giving a presentation about the importance of play to a group of engineers at Hewlett Packard. He preferred to “not define play” because it’s so varied and even “preverbal”. His colleague told him, “Stuart these are engineers, they’re people of systems. If you go in there insisting they care about something that YOU refuse to define, they’ll eat you alive.” He’s not wrong. We engineers are as hungry as we are opinionated about tabs versus spaces. (tabs for life)

Beginning at that presentation, and ever since, Stuart Brown has defined play via the following seven principles.

#1 - Play is something you do for its own sake.

Stuart Brown calls it “Apparent Purposelessness.” True play is its own reward. It doesn’t require a payoff to exist.

I don’t love jigsaw puzzles because I get a Hershey Kiss every time I connect a piece. The moment I finish I puzzle, I do the same thing we all do. First, I ask anyone within an earshot, “Did you notice I completed the puzzle?” Then after letting it sit out for far too long, I undo my achievement, piece by piece. The puzzle returns it to its box, having technically accomplished nothing beyond decreasing the amount of free table space in my living room.

So true play means we play for the sake of playing.

#2 - Play is voluntary.

It’s self-directed. We want to explore things for ourselves. It’s why virtually every parent has watched their child completely disregard a carefully selected gift in favor of....the box it came in.

#3 - Play is inherently attractive.

It’s fun. It’s satisfying in some way. Laughing feels good, therefore comedy exists. Ruthlessly bankrupting your children FEELS GOOD, therefore Monopoly exists.

#4 - Play frees us from time.

It’s like the old saying goes: Time flies when we engage our prefrontal cortex in immersive free thinking play.

#5 is similar. Play makes us less self-conscious.

When we’re fully engaged in play, our attention shifts away from the things we might normally be self conscious about. At a wedding reception, it’s the difference in how you feel walking on to the dance floor and walking off. The internal monologue “Everyone can tell my shoes are dumb” can transform into “I think I’m actually getting pretty decent at the worm” over 4 songs or 4 beers, whichever comes first.

#6 - Play has the potential for improvisation.

Play means welcoming change and new directions. We try connecting seemingly unrelated things. In 1944, Percy Spencer, an engineer working on new radar technology for the US Military, noticed a chocolate bar in his pocket had spontaneously melted during an experiment. Where many might have ignored the oddity, Percy Spencer’s desire to improvise, to follow his curiosity, and continue playing, eventually led to the invention of the microwave.

So thanks for playing Percy Spencer, this morning’s Bagel Bites were a lifesaver.

And finally

#7 - We want play to continue

If I lose a game of gin rummy to my daughter, I insist on extending the rules of our competition to best 2 of 3, 3 or 5, 4 of 7…… not because I genuinely think I have a chance, because I don’t. Playing gin rummy is fun and I don’t want it to stop.

 

In education or in work life, the ones who do well are the ones who play.

Chair of Learning through Play, Vice-President, LEGO Foundation - Bo Stjerne Thomsen

(07:28)The Decline of Play

So what happens when we stop playing? Stuart Brown says the opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression. Here’s Dr. Peter Gray, another leading psychologist and researcher in the field of play, speaking at a TED event.

Dr. Gray makes the case that we’re increasingly NOT treating play for what it is: one of humanity’s most extraordinary gifts.

“Over the last 50-60 years, we’ve been gradually taking that gift away.”–Peter Gray

The best evidence for this comes from the use of standardized clinical assessment questionnaires. Based on such assessments, five to eight times as many children today suffer from major depression or from a clinically significant anxiety disorder, as was true in the 1950s.”–Peter Gray.

Dr. Gray and many like him say we need to challenge our assumption that kids always learn best from adults, and allow for more freedom and true self-directed play in children. We need to better understand the extraordinary things that happen to our brains when we play...and perhaps most importantly, what happens when we don’t, particularly as children grow into adults.

(08:45) Play at Work 

Most businesses, as a general rule, worship efficiency like a labrador retriever worships a tennis ball. Wholly and unconditionally.

So when it comes to the idea of play, it’s easy to label it as frivolous, wasteful, and distracting. Or potentially worse - play is seen as a box to check with an office ping pong table. Nothing against ping pong tables, we have one in our office. That no one is using right now. You know. Pandemic.

Stuart Brown argues that part of the problem is that we often misunderstand the relationship of work and play. Brown says they’re not opposites. He says they’re more like “timbers that keep our house from collapsing down on top of us.”

He argues we should think of play as a Mindset, rather than an activity; that play shouldn’t be the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down...but rather a part of the medicine itself.

What does it look like to bring more of a play MINDSET into work?

As we asked ourselves that question, our team was simultaneously working on the final episode of this season, profiling the LABS teams here at Kin + Carta. LABS started as Solstice Labs years ago, and was designed as a dedicated part of the company to experiment with emerging technology and ultimately share what we learn with our clients.

As I speak, our labs teams are experimenting with ideas about mental health and social distance that we talked about WAY back in Episode 2.

(10:12) Kin + Carta Labs: Play Mindset at Work

We’re working on these two separate episodes...and it hit us: Part of what makes LABS tick...is a desire to play.

Past Labs teams have built smart ping pong tables, a virtual “Koko the Gorilla” who uses AI to teach sign language, blockchain-based employee recognition systems, chatbots, mixed-reality games, all kinds of fun stuff.

The projects are completely voluntary, self-directed, inherently attractive, open to improvisation, and detached from the same kind of clear “PURPOSE” of a client project.

We love to tinker. We love to discover new possibilities, and when we remove some of the inevitable “requirements” of the usual work, we explore new ways of using our specialized skill set...and have some fun in the process.

So why do it? Why bring this type of “play mindset” to work?

If it’s so ingrained in us biologically, there must be some functional reason for our love of play, right?


Play in the workplace does exist. We just don't call it play. We call it engagement

Bo Stjerne Thomsen - Chair of Learning through Play, Vice-President, LEGO Foundation

Making new connections

In childhood, play helps us make new connections and discoveries. A child learns what a firefighter is at school, she goes home to play and decides that her stuffed Octopus is now a firefighter because she’s got long arms and is good with water. Play allows us to draw connections and connect new pieces of the puzzle about how the world works.

The same thing is true of a Labs project.

LAUREN:

I would say it's very freeing.

That’s Lauren Blackburn, a Senior UX Designer here at Kin + Carta and a swell person in her own right.

Just the lack of pressure to perform and deliver something totally buttoned up kind of encourages you to free up the way you're thinking or approaching a problem with it in a way that's different from maybe how a team might approach a project in a typical day-to-day.

We also spoke with Dave Clark, Senior Director of Service Design and Digital Strategy here at Kin + Carta, who said the connections made in something like a LABS project are invaluable.

DAVE:

It allows us to get ahead, learn and experiment about what the technologies are good at. Not necessarily aligning them to a problem, but figuring out what problems do they solve well.

Practicing skills necessary for the future.

In a similar sense, play helps us practice skills we may need later on, without the risk. Grizzly bear cubs wrestle because it helps them practice how to hunt, fight, and defend themselves. When they’re under threat, it’s not the first time they’ve ever fought from their hind legs, or tried to swipe with their paws. It works the same way for humans. Except minus the paws and bite strength powerful enough to crush a bowling ball. Note to self. Cancel Grizzly Bowling League.

For us, building things like our own cryptocurrency or an AI-based sign language program gives us the chance to experiment and learn in an environment that’s low on risk but great for hands-on learning.

"It's valuable when the client comes and says, "I need expertise on how to apply these new technologies. I don't even know what to do with sensors, but I have a feeling that it might be applicable in my industry." Then now we have a group of people who've been working on this and who can bring their expertise and say, "This is the type of thing that sensors can really do well." ... we now know enough about how to use them, because we've built things with them."

(13:32) Enhancing Creativity

It’s also why play makes us more creative. Steve Jobs once described creativity as “connecting the seemingly unconnectable.” Research shows us that being in a state of play makes us more likely to do exactly that. Play helps us unlock brand new ways of thinking.

In fact, many groundbreaking innovations can be drawn back first to MUSIC. The mechanics of the earliest pianos made people ask “what if those hammers struck letters instead of notes.” That gave us “the writing harpsichord.” Today we’d call it a typewriter.

The punch cards that made the first programmable computers work? They were first inspired by cards used in mechanical looms.

Labs projects, and Express Day, our “Hackathon” at Kin + Carta, have yielded breakthroughs that might not be as world-changing, but have served up plenty of joy.

LAUREN:

"I just thought of another project that either came out of Express Day or one of the earlier Forward days, was the beer vending machine that we have in the office that is now mostly repurposed for... Oh, shoot. I forget the name. It's the fizzy water that everyone likes."

Yes, LaCroix is the fizzy water that briefly escaped Lauren’s mind. She’s referring to Vender, the smart beer vending machine born out of a company wide “hackathon” day. Beer was replaced with LaCroix only when our new office upgraded to a kegerator.

Developing Social Skills

Speaking of beer, play is also a critical part of social development. Playful wrestling not only helps bears practice how to defend themselves, but they also learn how to get along, how to be close to one another and not, you know... kill each other. In short, play teaches us how to empathize and cooperate.

Lauren says that part of the joy of a LABS project is that it can feel like an improv exercise.

LAUREN:

"If you are familiar with the concept of yes, and, it's a lot of yes-and-ing other ideas, and there's a lot of good feedback that happens, a lot of good bouncing ideas off of each other and everything, and there's, I think... Because there's less pressure to have a buttoned-up idea, because everyone's kind of in that same head space of play….

Removing the usual requirements and consequences of a client project makes bouncing ideas around a little easier, which makes us trust each other more, and become better collaborators for when it really counts."

Dave Clark says it’s why creating room for experimentation is so important.

DAVE:

"When you're experimenting, you have to be comfortable with being wrong. There's going to be lots of things that don't go the way you expect them to, and that is an important part of the process, because I think that if you just... If all it is, is setting yourself up to prove what you assumed, you don't really get too much innovation and you don't get too much enjoyable experience, to be honest."

So is play something that can be practiced? That’s what we asked Brian Burkhart, Founder & Chief Word Guy at a company called SquarePlanet Presentations.

BRIAN:

"I think it's mission critical to think of play as a skill that can be developed, engineered, and enhanced over time. The thing that has really worked for us is to actually build structure around it."

"A large portion of the work Brian and his team does is creating immersive live event experiences for businesses. Even during COVID-era virtual events, Brain says creating playful experiences for attendees is not just a luxury, but a must-have."

BRIAN:

"It's things like in a virtual world, we encourage our clients to do things like if you're having your event on a Thursday, have a chunk where you call it Fursday. That means you bring your little critter with you. You bring your dog or your kitty, and you put it on your lap for Fursday…"

BRIAN:

...it was Taco Tuesday on Tuesday afternoon. Everyone was encouraged in advance to get ready, "Move your computer to the kitchen because we're going to cook and eat together."

"It's really, really easy to look at all of those different parts and think of them as an utter waste of time, and yet they are the most human of all of the elements."

"Brian says he believes a playful mindset at work means letting no opportunity go to waste. Over the years, the deliberate habit of play has taken many forms. Marketing campaigns become things like “Square-planesta” - a fictitious prescription medicine for executives who suffer from poor communication habits, complete with pill bottles filled with orange jelly beans. Team meetings get kicked off with “Gong songs” where employees are required to compose a short rhyming poem, before striking a small gong. His team makes a habit of thinking with a playful mindset, in order to help his clients do the same."

It’s become so ingrained in his brain, Brain says he can’t help himself:

BRIAN:

"Just this past Christmas holiday I sent a client an embroidered SquarePlanet coat. Before I put it in the box, I just grabbed some post-its and I made little jokes about his favorite football team, which is the exact opposite of my favorite football team. I planted those little pieces of paper inside the pockets of the coat knowing that he'll eventually find them and he'll laugh."


I think it's mission critical to think of play as a skill that can be developed, engineered, and enhanced over time. The thing that has really worked for us is to actually build structure around it.

Brian Burkhart - Founder, Chief Word Guy, SquarePlanet

(19:20) In Conversation with The LEGO Foundation

While interviewing Bo we asked about the work he was most proud of and which he thought was most impactful.

BO STJERNE THOMSEN:

"The critical point, obviously, for the Lego Foundation is that play is so crucial for children's healthy development and for learning, for a range of different skills, creativity and critical thinking and collaboration, but also depth of understand. We want to change the understanding of how play's used in education among educators, schools. We want to help parents be equipped to support play in their own life and their children's. And we want to change the governments and the educational systems to focus more about the engagement, the enjoyment in the learning process, instead of traditional standardized outcomes."

"We work with parents and parenting programs with partners all over the world, international partners, UNICEF, and in more than 30 countries. We work with governments to change educational systems to focus much more about the quality of materials and to get access and support of children. And we work with teachers and teacher professional development. So we have a support for many of the stakeholders that are at the core of supporting children's lives."

We discussed if play could be inappropriate for the learning process.

BO STJERNE THOMSEN:

"Play is an active process, like doing something, it's practical. It's inherently enjoyable, also even if it's challenging because, when things are sparking questions and some surprise and wonder, you want to persevere for longer. And it's something where you're allowed to test and trial things. I would say, in that case, play is what children naturally do when they don't understand things, when they want to deal with changing conditions."

"Looking at the ones who succeed, whether in education or in work life, that the ones who do that well are the one who plays. So the ones who sustain this opportunity to test and trial things, to have a positive mindset, and to engage in things that interest them not because they just have to. They are the ones who are more adaptive, more flexible, more creative."

We also asked Bo how to encourage people to overcome their inhibition when they answer “I'm not creative."

BO STJERNE THOMSEN:

"It's quite important to, first, state that creativity exists across all units and functions. It's not only the designers, the artists, and so forth who are creative. You can be creative by changing your spreadsheet or, hopefully, not too much in accounting, but in different ways, you need to break down that anyone can bring an idea."

As a last thought, Bo was kind enough to share The LEGO Foundation's playlist

And now, straight from her living room to your ears, it’s our own Katie Pooler bring us Cooler Terms with Pooler and Hermes.

(45:53) Cooler Terms

(54:02) Conclusion 

Play is a spectrum of activities. It can be playing make believe with your children but it also can be just asking yourself ‘what if’ and ‘why?’ It is not always foosball tables and karaoke nights. It can be a hackathon or a fun question of the day like from my work associate Praneet “ If you were stuck on a desert island with a lifetime supply of one kind of condiment packet only, what would it be?” Thanks Praneet.

Play is fun. Play is important. It helps us learn new skills. It makes us more resilient. Play helps you be more creative. In your life and at work. So how will you play today?

What are you going to do to bring playfulness into your life? My advice. Start small. Do a little thing every day. Add a new ingredient to the same damn oatmeal with six raisins you have been eating for years. Put a kiwi on it. Go out for a walk and make up a life story for the first person you see. Give your daily status in haiku form. Skip to work.

Ok. Maybe that last one is not so small but I really want to make Business Skipping a thing. It’s great exercise. It makes you stand out from the crowd and you get where you are going ahead of your competition.Business Skipping: The New Way to Beat Your Competition to the Next Opportunity.

Oh and more thing - a company called Surprise Corporate America Merchandising has announced that the following lucky Working Better listeners have won a raffle for a brand new Tesla: Dan Kardatzke , J Schwan, Kelly Manthey. Please send us your home address, email address, drivers license number, Date of birth, social security number, favorite sports team, and name of your childhood pet and we will have that car shipped to you!

Thanks to Bo Stjerne Thomsen for joining us. Please go check out the Playlist that Bo mentioned at playlist.legofoundation.com. We’ll include a link on our website as well.

Also thank you Dave Clark, Lauren Blackburn and Brian Burkhart for your time and expertise!

Credits (if you’re open to this, I’d like to include mostly for sake of folks like Chris)

This episode was produced, written and edited by Maxx Parcell.

Chris Mitchell is our sound designer and engineer.

Luc Parcell wrote and recorded our theme song and all the other music you hear throughout the show.

Additional editing by Ashley Higuchi, and production support from Belen Battisti.

I’m Scott Hermes - as always be sure to subscribe to our show via your local podcast dealer. Love the show? Hate the show? Supremely ambivalent about the show?

Follow us on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, and SnapChat and let us know about all of your feelings. Or just sing them in a sea chanty. The ocean will carry your words to us, as it always does, as it always does. Thanks for listening and see you next episode.

Creativity exists across all units and functions. It's not only the designers, the artists, and so forth who are creative.

Bo Stjerne Thomsen - Chair of Learning through Play, Vice-President, LEGO Foundation