Friday, July 17, 2009

Play is the Mother of Social Innovation

I don't know about you, but sometimes I can get a little, err, serious while trying to do work that makes a difference. I make list after list of things to do, and then create schedules on top of work plans to get those things done. What I don't always do is make time for play, but after listening to a fantastic interview with Stuart Brown about Play, Spirit and Character on Speaking of Faith, I'm changing my ways.

According to Brown, not making time to play can be detrimental to human health and development:
"[W]hen one really doesn't play at all or very little in adulthood, there are consequences: rigidities, depression, lack of adaptability, no irony — you know, things that are pretty important, that enable us to cope in a world of many demands."
In her review of Brown's book, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Liz Massey of Creative Liberty relays an anecdote from Brown's book about the connection between play and innovation
"Play juices our problem-solving abilities. Early in the book, Brown writes about a recent problem Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory faced with its newest crop of young engineers—many were talented and academically distinguished, yet had difficulty creating solutions that required them to take a theoretical insight and put it to practical use. When the managers looked at the backgrounds of JPL’s 'old guard' of retiring engineers, they found that many of them had engaged in vigorous hands-on play as children—they were the children who took apart clocks and tried to put them back together again, built soapbox derby racing cars, fixed appliances, etc. The lab shifted its interviewing process to capture which engineering job candidates were oriented towards this sort of playful activity, and this improved their staff’s ability to tackle and resolve tough engineering design challenges."
How many nonprofits or advocacy campaigns do you know of that facilitate regular time for play as a tool for fostering innovation and problem-solving? Why are the folks in business the only ones who seem to have caught on to the power of play?

As a voiceover played during a break in the Speaking of Faith interview said,
"You can say, if you're in a company in Silicon Valley, 'OK. You guys, here's the general space of what we want you to find out about. And we're just going to let you play around until you do."
How do you think nonprofits, NGOs, activists and other social innovators can incorporate more play into their work?

In his post, The Importance of Play in Innovation, Bradley Kelley of Blogging Innovation links to an excerpt from an article about LEGO Serious Play workshops which the LEGO Serious Play site describe as, "A powerful tool designed to enhance innovation and business performance."

Maybe instead of the dreaded nonprofit retreat where everyone sits around in small groups and talks about the organization's mission, they need to play with some LEGOs instead.

You can read more about Stuart Brown's work on the National Institute for Play's website and watch a video of him talking about the importance of play on

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  1. Yes - play helps shake things up. And Speaking of Faith is a great program.

    Along similar lines, the other day I heard some of the Apollo moon landing astronauts interviewed. They commented on the importance of unstructured time, a little of which was built into some of the missions. That's when you see things you weren't necessarily looking for...

  2. Thank you for helping me to discover Stuart Brown and the National Institute for Play. Who says Twitter is a waste of time? I consider myself a PLAY Enthusiast and now I have the research to underscore my philosophy! Thanks. I'm a new subscriber to your blog. Hopefully we can meet some day.

    -Asia Hadley

  3. Hi Paul and Asia, I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

    Paul--I wonder why American culture doesn't support unstructured time very well in our work or personal life. It's where all the creative juices come from.

    Asia--Thanks for reading Have Fun * Do Good. I checked out your blog and added it to my feed reader (:

  4. Thanks for referencing my review of Brown's book. It's a really great look at a fascinating topic and one we can all enjoy learning more about. :)

  5. I enjoyed this very much, thanks for posting! I turned 34 today and I hope to practice neoteny in my daily life and professionally as well.:D

  6. You're welcome, Liz.

    Happy Birthday, Matt!


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