Free Play


I had a very interesting conversation this week with Ton Baan from the company Emplayment. He is the once developer of one of the first gamified apps for learning kids how to write (LetterSchool). He has always been interested in gamification, playfulness and its power for learning. We often have semi-phylosophic conversations on all things related to organisational learning and in one of our last encounters he asked me for feedback on an idea he is working on. It turns out he really made me think about the power of free play and what it can mean for organisations. 

Let’s start with some general observations.

  • There is a marked decrease in time spent on outdoor play by children. Time spent behind the computer or mobile device has increased dramatically, even compared to watching tv in the ’90s and ’00s; 
  • There is increasing evidence that computer use, social media, busy social life (clubs, sports), school and part time jobs have a detrimental impact on the (mental) health of children in Western societies. Stress and burnout ar on the rise in all age groups (see this article on decorrespondent – in Dutch;
  • Advances in robotics and AI lead to an increased importance of typically human traits such as creativity, complex problem solving, empathy and communication skills (check out Steven van Belleghem’s interaction with Gary Vaynerchuck;
  • Innovation calls for people who can dream and think outside the box. It requires people with a growth mindset; willing to experiment, fail and learn;
  • Many organisations strive to become an agile, innovative organisation that stands apart from their competitors.

This list alone already leads to the conclusion that we have a real challenge, both in society at large as within incumbant organisations. Within Rabobank we have recently started focussing on craftsmanship/productivity, vitality and change agility as the bedrock for creating a population of employees who are resilient enough to meet the challenges of the future. Whether inside or outside our organisation. I think we desperately need this focus, not just in my organisation but within our industry and beyond. I also think it is not enough. We also have to work on the context in which people work. Because even people who have these strong skills and competencies, having them working in a context that is not conductive to change and innovation will lead to even more frustration than before. 

Ton and I have a hunch that the absence of free play is an important factor here. But before we go into what I think is needed; what is free play anyway? It is not gamification. I love gamification. But it is still designed to create a very specific environment that adheres to strict rules and  patterns designed to reach a specific goal. In many environments using gamification can greatly increase learning or productivity. Free play on the other hand is absolutely free of rules. You can be and do anything you dream of. It is your kids on vacation in the woods picking up a stick and pretending it is a magic wand that they use to conjure a world of their own. They get totally immersed and creative, transported to a different reality. 

Do we encounter situations like that at work? In fact, do we encounter situations like that in our lives? Few and far between. The closest I get is management free hackathons or observing my kids play outside or in the open version of Minecraft. Maybe the best example was last year, when my kids and I decided to throw a children’s party at a venue that allows kids to freely create their own diy city. A safe and open space, with generic tools and materials, that allow kids to be as creative as they want to be. Importantly – engaging in physical free play.  

As a result of this absence traditional organisations are having great troubles in truly thinking outside the box. Even in situations where we have a licence to innovate we seem to be restricted and dream up the same type of solutions to our client’s needs. We might even have problems working together effectively. What we need is to start creating free play space. We need to understand free play and decide on ways in which we can improve this. We need to think about ways in which we can ‘teach’ people to rekindle their free play spirit and use it to benefit our clients, our organisation and our own productivity, change agility and vitality. 

Let’s play !

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