Our recent cohort session was devoted to exploring how playfulness leads to creativity.
Our presenter was Ann Shapiro, Executive Director of the Connecticut Storytelling
Center at Connecticut College in New London, CT . www.connstorycenter.org
Ann introduced us to the concept of play which is pursuing an activity (often physical) for no particular purpose at all. In fact, Ann suggested that if we are thinking of the final product, then it is hard to “play”. We need to give ourselves time to play and not expect results immediately or even at all.
Play. We all know what it is, don’t we? Of course, we do. We might not know the textbook definition, but we know what it is when we see it.
Ask my cat.
He’ll tell you that he’s playing when he jumps into and out of a box that is filled with packing paper. He’s playing when he’s chasing a red laser pointer around the house pretending he’s a fierce and heroic warrior/hunter. He’ll also tell you that he innocent and he didn’t mean to do it when he jumped from bookshelf to dresser at three in the morning, and missed, taking down the doily and my entire glass collection of treasured mementos that used to live there. He didn’t have to be carousing the house at that hour of the morning jumping from one place to another to another. He didn’t have a purpose or goal in mind - he was just having fun! He was playing.
My mother knew what it was too. She never defined it for any of her four children, but she certainly encouraged it. Apparently, for my mom, play was best accomplished while not in the house. “Go outside and play” was heard frequently as I was growing up. As a parent, I suspect that she said that often because she was tired of the sibling bickering but also because that is what children are supposed to do - play. She knew this and expected it. So, we did it. As children, this was a natural part of our lives and our imaginations flourished.
Stuart Brown, in his book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, views play as an essential part of our creative process. Creativity is paradoxical in nature. “Creative people know the rules of the game, but they are open to improvisation and serendipity...Much of play takes place in an imaginative world but is grounded in reality. In fact, play promotes mixing fantasy and reality.” (Brown, 136)
According to Brown, in that marvelous blend of imagination and real life; new ideas, connections, thoughts and synergy exists, which then allows us to utilize that creative output to become a story, play, book, product, scientific discovery, or other practical outcome.
Stuart Brown offers these seven steps to help facilitate play in our lives.
1. Take your play history Essentially, who are you in relationship to play? Take a “journey through your past and present” with an eye toward play - what it means to you and how you’ve engaged in it in the past; how you are currently engaged in play at present.
2. Expose yourself to play. Find it and engage with it. Don’t just study it. Do it.
3. Give yourself permission to be playful, to be a beginner. You don’t have to be an expert at play, you just need to be open to exploration.
4. Fun is your North Star, but you don’t always have to head north. Your play can be another person’s work. Look outside the box and realize that even play can have aspects of work. It’s a matter of how you view it. If you like to cook as a hobby or build things with your hands or shovel snow, that can be your play.
5. Be active. Physical activity can be one of the most basic forms of play and is part and parcel of most of our definitions of fun. Play can be dance, walking, running, swimming, or even games played with a group of people in an educational cohort.
6. Free yourself from fear. According to Mr. Brown, finding “secret spaces” in which to be safely alone is critical to our well-being, allowing us to adapt to our challenging environments from work to interpersonal relationships to life in general. If we are fearful, we aren’t engaged in play. In the state of play, we can let go of our fears - both internally and externally produced - to transform ourselves in ways that living and “working” with fear cannot.
7. Nourish your mode of play and be with people who nourish it too. Mr. Brown puts it succinctly “practice play”. That sounds counterintuitive. Practice? Isn’t that what you do to get better at something? Isn’t that work not play? If I want to become an Olympic athlete, I know I won’t be able to do that unless I practice. Climb Mount Everest? I won’t be able to do that without practice on smaller mountains and years of preparation. Learn to cook like Julia Child? That’s going to take some practice - studying her style, following her recipes and cooking repeatedly to improve my skill set and hoping that I have a smidgen of her innate cooking talent in order to follow in her footsteps. That is not play - that’s work.
Yet, practice can also mean “carry out” or perform an activity, a method or custom as well as just repeating the same activity over and over to improve one’s skill. Brown believes that we can also “practice” an activity by nourishing, encouraging, and sharing that activity such as play with other people who also enjoy that form of play.
Mr. Brown’s book about play is helping me to rethink how we handle our family business. In it, he writes of large and prosperous corporations who are seeking to actively engage their employees in the practice of play. They recognize the value of play in terms of creativity. Working incessantly doesn’t make us more productive. In fact, it could be doing just the opposite. According to Brown, the opposite of play is not work – it is depression.
This one hit home for me because Mr. Brown uses sailing as an example of “play” that isn’t always fun. Sailing requires boat upkeep, hauling it to and from the water, mending broken pieces and constantly putting money into one’s boat. However, that feeling of having all the pieces in working order blended with the perfect mix of wind, water and motion can create a euphoria that is quite addicting. Sailing can be play and lots of fun. However, when employed in the marine industry as my husband and I are, the pursuit of sailing perfection means long hours and stress. Sailing is recreation for many people but for us, it means work; finding play means looking elsewhere.
Which brings me back to step one, taking stock of my own play history. The little girl who used to “go outside to play” has grown up to be a person who spends very little time playing. Somewhere along the way, play got lost.
Over the years, I think I’ve subconsciously wanted to engage in play. Our basement is chock-a-block full of things that we could use to play but we never seem to have the time or, in the end, the inclination. The demands of our business and work always seem pressing. Taking time off to engage in a non-productive activity is “slacking off”, not encouraged or nourished. Responsible adults do not tend to play.
Over time, for both my husband and myself, the definition of being an adult developed into being serious, working all the time and doing what needs to be done or meet the demands of business and servicing our clients. We’ve managed to help perpetrate the myth that we’ll be better off if we never ever stop working. We’re doing everything “right” yet somehow, there’s always been a piece missing.
As recently as this afternoon, my husband has mentioned he’s not as productive, creative, organized or effective as he “used to be”. He is referring to a time when he used to engage in play. This makes me wonder, what if...the missing piece is play? If it is, then we have years of better times to look forward to instead of more of the same slogging onward constantly working and constantly feeling behind. If play is the answer, then sign me up.
Even if it is not, I can honestly say that our Saturday of play has helped me be more creative. I think I found another tool to help me on my journey from wannabe to writer to published author.