The Power of Play

Feb 5, 2014

“The power of play.” We hear a lot in educational circles about how play embodies risk-taking, experimentation, and exploration. It is a very powerful way to learn. Plus, it’s fun! Who doesn’t like play, right? But play can be tough to implement in the typical classroom tasked to raise test scores, adhere to a vetted teaching scope and sequence, and prepare learners for productive livelihoods in the context of an uncertain economy.

This is the story of two colleagues who saw a playful friendship turn into a fruitful professional collaboration.

Margaret: Jennifer and I are both learning experience designers here at Six Red Marbles. We work on very different projects on different floors but share a common love of road trips, the House of Cards miniseries on Netflix, and—wait for it—early 19th century curiosity cabinet museums. Oh, and bad jokes.

Jennifer: Wednesday morning started out quietly at the Six Red Marbles office in Boston. Most employees were checking e-mails and looking over their to-do lists for the day. I had my coffee in hand and was ready to tackle the day’s activities, but I was not prepared for what happened next . . .

I saw a message from my good friend Margaret pop up on my Instant Message program:

Margaret: Whatcha doing today?

Jennifer: I was going to tell you yesterday that I have the data analysis program SPSS (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences) for a few days.

Margaret: Oooh! Why don’t you give me a tutorial?!!? That would be great!

Jennifer: Let’s meet at noon. Would you send me some of your data, and I could put it in SPSS and then show you the fun stuff?

Margaret: THIS IS AWESOME! I love analyzing user trends!

Jennifer: I love looking at the numbers!

It should be noted that Jennifer wisely edited out our typical morning goofy banter from the transcript. Thanks, Jen.

Jennifer: Margaret and I met in a conference room and opened the computer and started entering in variables. I was very curious to see what type of data Margaret’s project had been collecting and how it could be analyzed. As we started looking through the results and going over the capabilities of SPSS, more ideas emerged as to how we could analyze the data. We were thrilled with the options and kept thinking of more possibilities. We were enjoying ourselves as we conversed, laughed, and shared ideas. I was having fun and by the happy looks on Margaret’s face, I could tell she was having fun, too!

Margaret: This was the right connection at the right time for my project! And it happened completely by accident, because Jennifer and I are friends and chat on a regular basis. In short, our history of free and open exchanges—play—set the stage for this collaboration.

Jennifer: After reflecting on this spontaneous event, I started thinking about play and work and whether play has a role in our work lives and should I make playful activities a part of my weekly routine. I think play sometimes gets a bad rap and is often thought of as a frivolous activity that is only appropriate for children or adult spare time. Think about how you would react if a good friend said that he or she played all day at work. You might think your friend was on the fast track to get fired from his or her place of employment. Should play and work occur at separate times? What would happen if we were encouraged to play at work? Would the work environment turn into mass chaos where nothing got done and we neglected all of our responsibilities? Could playing lead to the next great company innovation?

Margaret: Some of us proposed creating a four square court; it’s still under review.

Jennifer: I admit that I have a few biases when it comes to thinking about playing at work. First, I believe in the Six Core Principles of Six Red Marbles and see a lot of validity in the view that play is productive and an exceptional way to learn. Second, I have a degree in recreation, sport, and tourism and have been educated on the numerous benefits of play. I align myself with the respondents in Nicholson and Shimpi’s research that examined adults’ views that play can facilitate “the ability to escape reality, enhanced problem-solving, expansion of their minds, development of friendships and intimacy in relationships, greater pride in their accomplishments, connection to valued memories of important people and experiences in their past, feelings of joy and a loss of a sense of time, and deeper self-understanding.” Sounds pretty amazing, right?

Margaret: Like Jennifer says, play has shown to have an amazingly positive effect on youth learning. In fact, we respect the power of play so much that we work hard to design engaging and effective playful experiences for learners. My fellow learning experience designers and I get positively giddy as we produce and test materials such as online games and classroom activities that make learning less of a chore and more of an adventure.

But why should kids get to have all the fun? Since our brains are indeed malleable and continue to grow throughout our lifetimes, it makes sense that we adults need to keep playing in order to keep growing in all sorts of ways, too. A growth mindset means that we are all lifelong learners—and we share much in common with the younger learners who engage with what we produce at Six Red Marbles. I think being playful also means being open to the possibilities that show up, unexpectedly, in the course of a day—like a friend with SPSS.

Jennifer and Margaret: We plan to keep “playing” with the data and because of this experience, we will seek out further playful encounters and perhaps collaborate in more surprising and unexpected ways. And we and our colleagues will keep finding ways to integrate playful elements into learning materials. We encourage those who are reading this blog to think of a way to be playful at work and perhaps you too will find your own surprising results.


Put Us to the Test (January Edition)

From the Copy Desk (February Edition)

Return to top