Why you should make time for creative play

If you want to be seriously creative, stop taking yourself so seriously and make more time for play.

Play removes limits, which makes it ideal for creative exploration.

“Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun,” Alan Watts once stated.

Yet how often do we let play fall by the wayside? We dedicate so much time and energy on the here and now, expecting this moment to be our most challenging and rewarding, that we inevitably stop playing altogether. We stop wondering about what’s possible and instead worry about what’s not.

Consider a classic video game metaphor here though: you need to reserve your energy and tools for when you reach the final boss. For the rest of the game, your current skill level and what you have with you is enough.

And here’s the thing: boss battles account for less than 5% of the entire game.

Yes, plan for the end game, the big boss battle, where you’ll need to use everything you’ve got. But until then, remember that you’re not at the end of the game, you’re very likely still at the beginning of it. Play to level up. The difficult, serious stuff comes later.

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.

The space around ideas

Your job as a creative worker is to make space around where solutions might be.

Unfortunately we often mistake the role of the creative to be that of someone who finds the answers, who comes up with the ideal solution. Thinking that creativity is solution-driven like this restricts what’s possible.

When we set out to find a solution we miss the opportunity to see all of the other possible solutions that exist just outside where we’re looking. Our focus and intent restricts us.

Instead, the role of creativity is to make elaborate spaces around where solutions or answers might be, then letting the picture we paint show us where the novel solutions lie.

Like putting together a puzzle without knowing what the end result will be. Eventually you’ll start to see the bigger picture. It’s harder to do if you think you already know what the picture looks like, however. You may be wrong. So, instead, you shouldn’t look for answers, but instead explore all of the pieces of the puzzle.

To do this, we have to create vast environments that allow for play, that encourage experimentation, and which empower us to be resourceful.

If you’re a creative individual, your task isn’t to come up with one solution or idea. Stop thinking that it is.

Your focus should be on exploring the world (both literally and figuratively) around the work. Explore, ask questions, poke and prod, tinker, doodle, discuss, and relax.

Working this way makes it easier for the best ideas – the truly original and valuable ones – to appear on their own.

Remember that you’re not looking for an answer, you’re looking for all the pieces.

Creative work as play as work

“Almost all creativity involves purposeful play.” – Abraham Maslow

Creativity requires hard work, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable.

Play can be work too. In-fact: some people would say that play and work are synonymous. Isn’t play what good, fulfilling work, really is anyway? If you have an objective, a set of rules, and are otherwise free to explore ways to achieve your objective, you’re essentially playing a game. Those same elements are what defines fulfilling creative work too however.

The task to come up with creative solutions to projects and problems is as simple as observing the work as a form of play.

Purposeful playing allows you to explore, to experiment, to pursue unique methods of achieving a goal or coming up with a solution. To quote game researcher and author Jane McGonigal: “Freedom to work in the most logical and efficient way possible is the very opposite of gameplay.” The same definition could be given to creativity: freedom to work in an illogical and often inefficient way. That doesn’t mean you won’t succeed or come up with a good idea, it just means the way you discover your ideas is unorthodox.

This mentality explains why children are considered to be so creative, particularly when it comes to playing imaginary games.

Often we let work intimidate us. Our bills, our future, our reputation, and our success relies on the work we do, but shifting your perspective to one of having fun relieves the stress and helps you pursue creative ideas in very unique (and often rewarding) ways. Grab some Play-Doh or some crayons, gather up some friends, and see how you can turn your work into a game.

So yes: playing can lead you to creative ideas. The hard work is getting down to the nitty gritty in order to play, whenever and however you can. If you can today: set some rules, have a clear objective, and get to work playing.

Photo by Epsos.

The four pillars of play

Children are inclined to creative exploration and imagining.

Give a child a box of blocks and you’re giving them everything they need to create castles, houses, entire planets, robot friends, and so much more. Give an adult a box of blocks though and… well, you probably won’t see as much innovative construction.

Why is that?

Laura Seargeant Richardson shows us that the reason adults – and now more often than not: older children – lack open minds is because we are designed to be players in the game of life, rather than creators.

In The Four Secrets of Playtime That Foster Creative Kids Laura walks us through what it takes to ensure children maintain their creative attitudes as they grow older, but the article also demonstrates what it takes to make anyone rekindle youthful creativity. Laura writes: “All adults ultimately need to re‒imagine how we can enable and support [change] … The answer may lie in four foundational pillars of play: open environments, flexible tools, modifiable rules, and superpowers.”

The article does a lot to describe the creative crunch we’re imposing on children these days, but also demonstrates a lot of the unnecessary restrictions we place on adults and ourselves as well.

Read the entire article (I promise it’s worth five minutes) and consider this question for today: how can you use open environments, flexible tools, modifiable rules (even if you have to make them up yourself), and imaginary superpowers to become more creative today? What’s stopping you?