Of the four FISH! Philosophy practices, people tell us Play is the most difficult to understand. To help, we decided to go to the experts: Kids.
Play is essential for child development. Through play, children take charge of their lives. They create rules. They test new ideas. They work together. Because their playmates can quit the game at any time, children learn to be sensitive to the needs and feelings of others.
These skills are important predictors of academic success. They also improve problem solving, creativity and emotional intelligence—critical job requirements for the 21st century.
The need for Play doesn’t go away with age. When humans can’t play—and this is true of most animals—they become anxious and withdrawn. It’s not just missing fun. It’s losing the space to experience some freedom and control. That’s why play expert Stuart Brown says, “The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression.”
Here are four ways to bring more Play and learning into your life, based on lessons from childhood:
1. Embrace Your Capabilities
Many people believe the ability to learn is fixed early in life. While most “wiring” happens in the first few years of life, the brain still retains an amazing capacity to build new neural pathways at any age. This is called neuroplasticity.
A study found when students were taught their brains are capable of constantly changing and growing—no matter what their present abilities—their morale, confidence and grades improved significantly.
Instead of telling students, “You are so smart!”, experts say it’s more effective to say, “You worked really hard!” This encourages persistence.
Too often as adults, we stop playing with new ideas. When that happens, our brains simply strengthen existing neural pathways (reinforcing our belief we can’t learn anything else). Why not have some fun and apply your neuroplasticity to new skills? It starts with believing you can do it.
2. Find the Right Motivation
When you try something new, your brain records the neuron change. If it decides the experience is interesting or important, it makes the change permanent.
Children put a lot of work into play and their enthusiasm boosts their learning. The excitement of the activity is its own reward.
Adults usually take a different approach. To motivate people to perform better, they offer material rewards. That works—but only to a point.
Researchers offered a group of college students several levels of rewards for performing a series of tasks. When the task involved a motor skill or narrow focus, the higher the reward, the better the performance. But for tasks involving creativity, the larger the reward offered, the poorer the results.
Organizations are increasingly asking people to expand their thinking, not narrow it. According to Daniel Pink, a behavioral science author, the best way to encourage this is with internal motivators, such as autonomy and the chance to master new skills.
More and more organizations offer employees regular time to work on projects of their own choosing. This has led to solutions—such as software fixes and improved processes—that would not have been developed within the mental confines of their usual duties.
Ever watch a child stacking blocks? If it falls over, they try again, gradually learning to balance with ease.
Play teaches kids not to give up. So why are adults so averse to failure? To keep pace with a world that is changing all the time, you must experiment. And experiments by their nature have an uncertain outcome.
Take calculated risks. Limit experiments to small projects. Develop ideas quickly, assess the results, toss what doesn’t work and keep polishing. The faster you fail, the faster you learn.
People learn more quickly when they are empowered to make more decisions on their own, especially in situations not anticipated by procedures. Make sure everyone understands the principles that fulfill your values and goals, then free them to put those principles into action. People will be more engaged and committed.
4. Don’t Force It
Experts define childhood play as an activity that is self-directed and voluntary. As soon as it feels like something you have to do (like when parents start supervising), enthusiasm wanes and neural pathways are less likely to activate.
It’s the same with adults. Play isn’t an expectation or obligation that has to lead to a prescribed result. People must be free to play in their own way.
When planning group activities, let people know it’s an invitation. Give them the chance to have fun together without pressure. Play builds camaraderie, which can grow into trust—and trust is key to great teams.