A LEGO Serious Play build showing various elements. The baseplate is lying on a timber desk with a white wall behind.

Image: Three benefits of play have been represented through LEGO® Serious Play® – can you identify them?

Published on April 29, 2000

Why Play in a Time of Crisis?

Why – in the midst of a global pandemic, and faced with extraordinary change, uncertainty and loss – would anyone think about play? Times are tough and the road ahead rocky for the foreseeable future. Surely a stoic attitude and a laser focus on efficiency and the bottom line are the order of the day?

The fact is play is not an optional extra, a frivolity or indulgence when time permits. Play is a basic biological need across all ages; we are wired for play. In fact, the impulse to play begins in the brain stem, home to other non-indulgent survival mechanisms such as heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, sleep and consciousness. However unlike most of our physiological needs, our choices can either stifle or foster play – and in order to thrive we must cultivate and sample it on a regular basis. Similar to sleep deprivation, a long-term play deprivation eventually results in inhibited healthy social development and impaired emotional balance and judgement. Respecting our biology by engaging in play activates a multitude of pathways to human flourishing, which are especially critical in this time of crisis.

A little play is a catalyst, lifting us out of either the traumatic or the mundane, and boosting our wellbeing.  Regardless of your roles or responsibilities in life, here are three reasons why you should prioritise play in your life today:

1. Deactivating Stress

Some stress is good – it can even save your life – but in today’s world we are dosed with high levels of chronic stress, responsible for much of the ill-health seen within developed nations. This was never truer than in a global pandemic where our basic needs such as health, shelter, and food are threatened. Play is one of the mechanisms that activates our body’s ‘renewal system’ (the parasympathetic nervous system) which is designed to work in harmony with the ‘stress system’ (the sympathetic nervous system).

Richard Boyatzis and colleagues have found that regular and varied 15 minute doses of renewal activities – including meditation or prayer (to a loving God), modest exercise, spending time with loved ones, stroking pets, being hopeful about the future, compassion for others, laughter and playfulness – engage the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn activates hormones that lower blood pressure and strengthen the immune system.  Learning to recognize our own renewal moments and giving ourselves permission to remain present in them, helps us to maintain the critical balance between survival stress and renewal in our busy modern world.

2. Safety & Connection

It’s our human to human connections that create the most meaningful moments in our lives, and these connections are formed through meaning making, story-telling and empathy building – traits that are also integrated within the LEGO® Serious Play® approach.

Human trust is established through play signals in our infancy and childhood, and as adults we also develop and share play signals within our groups in order to create a sense of safety. Although we can certainly play alone, playing with others provides a strong sense of physical and emotional safety within that group – Think about sports teams, bands and special interest clubs.

As we navigate the emotional separation that comes with physical distancing, activating shortcuts to reinstate our sense of safety and genuine togetherness is essential for our mental and physical wellbeing.

3. Improvisation & Innovation

Play is nature’s greatest tool for creating new neural networks and overcoming mental barriers, or to quote Scott Eberle, Editor of the American Journal of Play, “Play is our brain’s favourite way of learning”. When in a state of play, our creative capabilities are fired up. We can find new patterns and cognitive combinations, experimenting to help us adapt to ever-changing challenge and ambiguity. According to eminent biologist Marc Bekoff, play is “training for the unexpected”.

Creativity is the source of all growth – new products and services, new approaches, new customers, and new purpose. With the freedom to improvise we are open to serendipity and change, and as a result we stumble upon new ways of thinking about and approaching our world. Unleashing creativity around a common purpose was never more needed.

We all have different play ‘languages’, and during COVID-19 these might include baking homemade sourdough, a DIY hack at home, family or online board games, joining a couch choir, throwing the ball for your dog, finding flow while running, building forts with your kid, or getting lost in your favourite comedy. Whatever your choice, now truly is the time to let your own unique combination of play and rejuvenation preferences guide you, and to cultivate them intentionally in order to reap those crucial benefits.

More than ever we need the courage to imagine a new common future, the human to human connection which fuels our wellbeing and joy, and the compassion for ourselves and for others which will ultimately be the key to not just surviving, but thriving, in the uncertainty which lies before us.

I’ll close with this quote by Stuart Brown, psychiatrist, clinical researcher, and founder of the National Institute of Play:

“Rediscovering play is about learning to harness a force that has been built into us through millions of years of evolution, a force that allows us to both discover our most essential selves and enlarge our world. We are designed to find fulfilment and creative growth through play.”

Go well. Play well.

Notes & Acknowledgements

  • Richard Boyatzis, Melvin Smith & Ellen Van Oosten, “Helping People Change: Coaching with Compassion for Lifelong Learning and Growth” (2019)
  • Scott Eberle, Vice President for Play Studies at The Strong, Editor of American Journal of Play. Blogs at ‘Play in Mind’.
  • Stuart Brown, “Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul” (2010)