The role of free-play in a high-performance work culture

April 28, 2022

by Ravi Raman

One of the interesting things about having a toddler is the sheer amount of unstructured play involved. Toddlers have rules, but they are absolutely not your rules.

For example, the other week I had plans to set up an elaborate game involving a bushel of wooden blocks, an army of figurines, and a fleet of toy cars. The purpose of the game was to build a command center for the toy figures, garages for the cars, and with the structure in place, play out a series of missions to rescue the broken cars and safely bring them back to the safety of a covered shelter.

My son had other ideas.

His idea was to demolish the command center, and then lovingly torment our playful pup, Duke. barricading him outside of his play area with a cardboard box (it worked for like 5 minutes). His game was much more fun to him and evolved into something new every few minutes. It was a reminder that my planned-out games are always far less interesting than his spontaneous ones.

This form of free-style play is fun for children. While it can be maddeningly boring for a process-minded adult, when I loosen up my mind, it’s enlivening for me as well! Beyond fun, it’s also very important. More important than we can imagine.

Recently, I read a fascinating piece by author and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt about the root cause of the fractured society we live in, and the role social media plays. Deep in the article, was a link to an even more fascinating report, The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology.

This heavily-sourced paper makes a strong case for the decline of unstructured play being a primary and causal factor in the rise of psychopathology in children. Social media might be making things worse, but this trend has been in motion well before we started Tweeting and Liking all day long.

As the table below shows, the problem seemed significant and worsening in 1989, especially given that the responses are from teens aged 14-16. I shudder to think what the data would look like today.

Adolescents aged fourteen to sixteen between the years 1948 and 1989

The article is so insightful that I recommend carving out time to read it in full. Below is the abstract:

Over the past half-century, in the United States and other developed nations, children’s free play with other children has declined sharply. Over the same period, anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism have increased sharply in children, adolescents, and young adults. This article documents these historical changes and contends that the decline in play has contributed to the rise in the psychopathology of young people.​ Play functions as the major means by which children​:

(1) develop intrinsic interests and competencies;​

(2) learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules;​

(3) learn to regulate their emotions;​

(4) make friends and learn to get along with others as equals; and​

(5) experience joy.​Through all of these effects, play promotes mental health.

Now, let’s perform a thought experiment that the author does not propose, but I do:

Substitute the word Professionals for the word “children” in the abstract.

I don’t know of research proving a causal link between free-play (of activity and thought) and psychological well-being and performance in the workplace amongst adults. However, I do know from my coaching practice and previous work as a tech leader, that there is a positive relationship here.

For example, Bill Gates famously set aside Think Weeks on a routine basis to retreat from the noise of being CEO and play with ideas, some sourced from employees (I even sent in a few papers to be reviewed by Bill during my time at the company) while others emerged naturally through reflection on the future of technology and long-term direction of the company.

More specifically, during my corporate career, I often attended and hosted off-sites for teams to literally get out of their routine mode of working, loosen up, and think more freely and creatively about the future direction of products and services being built. While I wouldn’t call these off-sites playful or free-spirited, glimmers of this type of attitude would often emerge after a day (or three!) spent exploring a market opportunity or challenge. We probably would have done better imbibing more in a playful attitude intentionally.

What I’m getting at is that adults are more child-like than we think, after all, we never really outgrow the child in us.

If free-style play can unlock something profound and helpful in a child, can it not do something similar in adults?

If an attitude of, and time for, unstructured play can teach a group of children how to create, collaborate, follow-through, obey boundaries and make decisions (as the report articulates); why aren’t professionals and leaders more open to doing the same for a team of adults who are lacking trust, waning in motivation, struggling to collaborate and feeling indecisive?

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