Why play is essential for creativity

Play is more than just important for creativity, it’s often necessary.

Without a play-like attitude, creative insights hide from us behind fear and uncertainty. When we don’t embark on activities that involve play, being creative becomes a challenge.

Multiple research studies have demonstrated the power play has on our ability to think and work creatively. In 1967, Brian Sutton-Smith demonstrated that study participants who were given a task to imagine various purposes for an object were likely to come up with considerably more ideas than their peers if they were allowed to play and tinker with the object first.

In their 2010 report, researchers Paul Howard-Jones, Jayne Taylor, and Lesley Sutton explain how allowing students to first have time for play (10 minutes with a wad of playdough) before conducting a creative or standard task enforces better output and more creative ideas.

Play truly does instill a sense of creativity in both children and adults (and Sutton-Smith has gone to make a well-established career proving it).

But why does play affect our ability to be creative?

The research shows that play-like activities put us into into a psychological state where it’s ok to fail, where it’s ok to wonder “what if?” A result of that thinking is the ability to freely explore the unknown. From that exploration creative insights are much easier to spot.

As Sutton-Smith put it:

“While play spaces are generally fantasy spaces, players often experience real stakes when inside them.”

Play involves a very “pretend” type of world where anything goes. But the results of play can often be very real, particularly when it comes to creativity.

By removing the strain and constraints of the real world, play allows us to more openly explore possibilities in our work. But play offers us more than mere escape from reality, it also offers us more exposure to diversity of perspective.

In The Ambiguity of Play, Sutton-Smith explains how play, by nature, involves a multitude of ambiguity and (as a result) diversity.

Through play we can be anyone or anything (a mascot, an explorer, a president, a jester, a time traveler, and so on). When we play, we are also free to utilize any play items within our grasp as well (balls, paper, glue, scissors, pencils, lego bricks, game boards and pieces, etc.).

Play removes limits that otherwise constrain us to what we currently know to be possible. It’s by removing those constraints and opening ourselves to diversity (through play) that creative insights become the norm of what we’re doing.

To bring more creativity-invoking play into your work, consider the four pillars of play.

Photo via Booooooom.