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The importance of play in innovation


Visit any major technology, creative or marketing office around the world right now and you will find something very different from the traditional executive environment of marble tables, wood paneling and immaculately pressed suits. You’re far more likely to find bright coloured furniture, a foosball table, some bean bags, and a slide. For the traditional executive, it may seem like you’ve entered a giant childcare facility or organised chaos, but these office environments have been quite deliberately designed.

You see, these companies recognise the profound importance of play.

The research is in. Play is essential for us all. From young children to adults, play is essential in developing creative thinking, as well as improving reasoning and problem solving skills.

Key in this research is the notion that imagination can help drive innovation. And in an age where innovation is the new competitive advantage, fostering imagination should be seen as a crucial aspect of learning and development. Psychologist, Dr Peter Gray said it best way back in 2008:

One of the main purposes of play in our species, I think, is to promote our use of imagination to solve problems. … Imagination provides the foundation for our inventiveness, our creativity, and our ability to plan for the future. …When we allow ourselves to take a playful attitude … we are providing ourselves with a context for solving problems that might otherwise be intractable.

The tools of play have changed, but the purpose of play has not. From collectibles to competitive video games, children can imagine storylines and seek out solutions to problems through the lens of the characters they adopt. This is really important: scenario mapping and imagining new powers or new ways of behaving is the very basis of innovation. So these instruments of play are a form of imagination seeding.

Scenario mapping and imagining new powers or new ways of behaving is the very basis of innovation

There is also growing evidence that play – at any age – is important to our happiness. Those businesses with the brightly coloured furniture and slides in the office also understand that to keep your workforce, you need to keep your team feeling good about their jobs and their workplaces. This seeding of playful environments impacts on both productivity and hcreative thinking, so it helps with staff retention and innovation, simultaneously. And it turns out that children’s happiness is influenced by their play environment, too. As the saying goes, money can’t buy happiness. Instead, for children, happiness comes from the chance to develop relationships, and to exercise imagination.

The media backlash against new forms of play (video games, or immersive experiences such as virtual reality storytelling) is as unwarranted as it has been disproven. There is ample evidence now that these technologies and experiences can have positive effects on children. In fact they are so widely accepted in universities, that they are supported as a sport.

What is useful is to ensure that time spent with these immersive experiences is supplemented by play with physical, tangible toys and equipment

Again, the evidence is that children who can project from their experiences in screen environments onto representative figurines, or into lived environments, are better able to solve problems than those who live entirely in the digital world.

We need to embrace the concept of play as the best chance we have as a society 

As marketers and parents, we need to take a step back from the tendency to assume that all toys and screen time are wasteful or dangerous to social development in children in particular. If these new instruments of play allow kids to think differently, take on a part as a character in a storyline, develop new relationships and find new ways to solve problems, they are actually helping their own social development.

We need to embrace the concept of play as the best chance we have as a society, to solve some of the biggest problems facing the world today. It may seem that a ‘construction toy consisting of interlocking plastic building blocks’ is a long way from a solution to climate change. But the kids who learn about the world from playing and thinking about how they can save the world, might just one day save our world.


Anthony J James was awarded LinkedIn’s ‘Agency Publisher of the Year’ for Asia Pacific. Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this post maybe try one of these as well – see other posts.

Posted on March 4, 2017

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