Train The Trainer

The Importance of Play in Learning

As adults you have probably forgotten the importance that play took in your learning and development as a young child.  However if you have young children now, you are likely to be incorporating fun and games into their learning.  Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength.  Play is important to healthy brain development.  It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them. When playing, people don’t even realise they are learning.  How many facts have you remembered from watching Mastermind, University Challenge or Only Connect?  With so many game shows on TV, it indicates that we love our quizzes and testing our brains, so why not use this in a training and work environment.

As adults too we tend to learn better in a more relaxed and entertaining atmosphere.  You’ll learn a new task better when it is fun and you’re in a relaxed and playful mood. Play can also stimulate your imagination, helping you adapt and problem solve.  Our society tends to dismiss play for adults. Play (or playing) is a word that, as adults, we shy away from and is perceived as unproductive, petty or even a guilty pleasure.  It seems too frivolous to be used in a work-based or learning situation.  The notion is that once we reach adulthood, it’s time to get serious and between personal and professional responsibilities, there’s no time to play.  One of the things that may often stop us from playing is that we, as adults, get very set on who we are and the types of activities that we do and do not like.  But play is healthy and fun, so it benefits us to figuratively—or literally—roll the dice and allow play back into our lives.

We have successfully used quizzes/questions based on snakes and ladders, as well as a mini version of some of the game shows that are so popular on TV.  Even the most unwilling participant soon starts to enjoy the event.  The course and consolidation of learning in the game are often remembered long after, so make sure your game has serious learning content.

Play for an adult is critical in our stressful lives.  Play has been shown to release endorphins, improve brain functionality and stimulate creativity.   It can even help to keep us young and feeling energetic and studies have shown play improves our memory and stimulates the growth of brain cells.  Play is just as key for adults as it is for children.  Play in adulthood can strengthen personal bonds and help people in overcoming differences and small aggravations that build up over time.  Consider a team building event on an ad hoc basis to help teams perform better together and encourage the flow of information between project team members.

If you are running a course or an event and want to lighten the mood, get some interaction and introduce a game, avoid the use of the words ‘play a game’.  It will alienate some of your audience.  Try referring to it as a ‘more light-hearted way of finding out what you have learned so far’. Play brings joy and it’s vital for problem solving, creativity and relationships.

What is Play?

“Defining play is difficult because it’s a moving target,” Scott Eberle said. “[It’s] a process, not a thing.” He said that it begins in anticipation and hopefully ends in poise. “In between you find surprise, pleasure, understanding — as skill and empathy — and strength of mind, body, and spirit.” Dr Stuart Brown, MD, (author and psychiatrist) has been studying play for decades and in his book, Play, he outlines the play types that he has observed during his years of research. He also compares play to oxygen. He writes, “…it’s all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing.” This might seem surprising until you consider everything that constitutes play.  Play is art, books, movies, music, comedy, flirting and daydreaming.  Even playing a video clip during a training course with questions afterwards could be considered play as it is an activity that is different from the more conventional elements of the course/classroom.

Dr Brown called play a “state of being,” “purposeless, fun and pleasurable.”   “What all play has in common,” he says, “is that it offers a sense of engagement and pleasure, takes the player out of a sense of time and place, and the experience of doing it is more important than the outcome.”

Also, the activity is needless and as Brown has said, for some people knitting is pure pleasure; for others, it’s pure torture.  Play is different for all of us, for some it may be playing squash, walking the dog, watching a movie, going to drama lessons at night school and so on.  Soccer icon David Beckham has said that he plays with Lego pieces to control stress.  While serving as Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron was known to decompress at the end of a long day with the video game Angry Birds.

We don’t need to play every second of the day to enjoy play’s benefits. In his book, Brown calls play a catalyst.  A little bit of play, he writes, can go a long way toward boosting our productivity and happiness.  Perhaps you have heard the saying, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”  There is probably more truth to the saying than most realise. Research indicates that without play, it is hard to give your best at work or at home.  So how can you add play into your life?

7 Properties of Play

In his book, Play, Dr Brown lists what he calls the seven properties of play and when we are playing, all or most of these seven properties are in evidence.

Play is Apparently Purposeless

Play has no strictly essential purpose for human survival. Play does not get you food, money, or shelter. It’s not that play has no purpose, it’s that the purpose of play is not immediately apparent. It’s not until people lack any significant kind of play in their lives that we begin to see how important it is.

Play is Voluntary

Play is not required by duty. It cannot be undertaken by compulsion. Play has to be entered into freely. We’ve all known the one who holds out who is forced to play a game but will not “play” freely. They spoil the experience for everyone else. It’s a protective measure against the vulnerability of play.

Play has an Inherent Attraction

We naturally want to play. What constitutes play for me, may not be play for you. Play is what feels good, or fun, or stimulating for you. Because we love to do it, play is a cure for boredom.

Play involves a Freedom from Time

When we are involved in play we lose track of time. We are so engrossed in the moment that time often seems to fly, or even ceases to exist. Time doesn’t matter so much when we play because we are too focused on the activities of the present moment.

Play involves a Diminished Consciousness of Self

During play we stop thinking about the fact that we are thinking. Hence, we stop caring about what we look like when we play. We stop posing and attempting to control others’ opinions about us. We are not thinking about ourselves at all. In fact, when we play we are able to try on different ‘selves’, or aspects of our own ‘personalities’.

Play involves Improvisational Potential

Play allows us the space to improvise, imagine, and follow those new inclinations to see what happens. Through play we stumble onto new (to us), patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting in the world. These new patterns offer us new ways of being and connecting with other people.

Play produces Continuation Desire

Play makes us want to keep on playing. We don’t want it to end. We will often improvise or bend the rules in order to keep on playing. You know that you are involved in play when you are genuinely unhappy to see it come to an end.  Remember asking to play just one more game?

Methods of Play

Attunement Play

When an infant makes eye contact with his/her mother, each experiences a spontaneous surge of emotion (joy). The baby responds with a radiant smile, the mother with her own smile and rhythmic vocalisations (baby talk). This is the grounding base of the state-of-play. It is known, through EEG (electroencephalogram) and other imaging technologies, that the right cerebral cortex, which organises emotional control in our brains is “attuned” in both infant and mother.

Physical/Rough-and-Tumble Play

Rough-and-tumble play is a great learning medium for all of us. Diving, tug-of-war, capture the flag, scavenger hunts, kicking a ball, and paintball are all ways to play actively. According to Dr Brown, through this form of play we develop emotional regulation as well as cognitive, emotional, and physical dexterity/mastery.

Symbolic/Ritual Play

Chess, board games, and activities or sports with set rules and structures all fall into the world of ritual play.  It is in ritual play that we can create, strategise, design, and engage in activities that bring people together for a common purpose or goal.

Imaginative/Pretend Play

Remember when you were a child and had so much fun living out your fantasies and letting your imagination run wild? This is what imaginative play is all about! Colouring, storytelling, painting, drawing, crafting, and acting, as well as comedy all foster our imagination, innovative and creative sides through play.  It helps us understand and trust others and develop coping skills for real-life situations.

Body and Movement Play

Dr Brown defines body play as a spontaneous desire to get ourselves out of gravity—how much fun is this form of play! Yoga, Pilates, hiking, whitewater rafting, riding roller coasters, mountain climbing, surfing, and snorkelling all fall into the realms of body play.

Object Play

This form of play will really bring us back to our childhoods as object play can encompass building with Lego bricks, playing with Jenga blocks, building fortresses, and even having snowball fights.  Manipulation of objects, building, and designing all fall into the object play category and improve hand-eye co-ordination.  If a group of people are given a task of building a tower from wooden blocks, it is surprising to see who are the dominant leaders and organisers, who has the brilliant strategy ideas and who has the finished item in mind.


Young children are strongly motivated to make sense of their world and, as part of this, they are very interested in rules. As a consequence, from a very young age, they enjoy games with rules, and frequently invent their own. These include physical games such as chasing games, hide-and-seek, throwing and catching etc, and, as children mature, more intellectual games such as board and card games, electronic and computer games, and the whole variety of sporting activities. As well as helping children to develop their understandings about rules, the main developmental contribution of playing games derives from their essentially social nature.  While playing games with their friends, siblings and parents, young children are learning a range of social skills related to sharing, taking turns, understanding others’ perspectives and so on.  This is something that as adults we need reminding of!

Studies in the UK have shown that well-designed computer games offering open-ended or problem-solving challenges to children are likely to share some of the benefits of problem-solving or constructional play with objects.

To learn more about the different types of play, check out this TED talk video featuring Dr Stuart Brown: “Play is more than just fun

Side Effects

These may include (but are not limited to):

  • improved cognitive functioning
  • being able to deal with stress with greater ease and fluidity
  • creative thinking
  • childlike exuberance
  • laughing more often

Experiment a bit to find what works for you and your colleagues, as we all could use a bit more play in our responsible, adult lives.  Build relationships that improve team working and productivity.  Cultivate a dynamic, rewarding and beneficial work atmosphere.

Final Words of Wisdom

There is so much research around to support the benefits of play.  It’s time to stop being so serious about life and start enjoying it more.  Not only does it make you feel better but it enhances your ability to do everything resulting in better relationships, better concentration, more physical capabilities, better memory and more skills.

Our courses are serious, but the atmosphere we create is one of openness and fun with quizzes, games and challenges to consolidate learning.

Enjoy your day & PLAY


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