We learn from stories and experience
You can learn a lot from a child (redux)

The secret to great work is great play

We were born to play. Play is how we learn and develop our minds and our bodies, and it's also how we express ourselves. Play comes naturally to us. I was reminded of this while listening to a cool little jazz gig near the beach in Maui a couple of months ago. I snapped this photo below of a little girl enjoying the simple beauty of that musical moment by dancing happily all by herself.


I love this picture above because it shows both adults and a child at play. The adult musicians are expressing themselves through jazz, a complex form of play with rules and constraints but also great freedom, freedom that leads to tremendous creativity and enjoyment for the players and the listeners. The child did not know or care about the complexities of the chords and the rhythms or the wonderful interplay among the musicians, yet the energy and beauty of the music made her smile, then laugh, then dance. She did not care if her dance was "good enough" — she just danced because she was moved by the music. She danced with such exuberance and speed that she appears only as a blur in the photo above. Dance is perhaps the purest form of play. Children move to music long before they receive instruction on "how to dance." We are born to move and we are born to play. Children remind us of this. They remind us that we are passionate beings.

Original photo of Martha Graham by Barbara Morgan.

Play keeps us in the moment
A spirit of play engages us and brings us into the content and into the moment.
Children remind us that we need more play in the classroom, in the lecture hall, and especially in the typical conference presentation. But first we adults must give up the notion that play is not serious. We must abandon the notion that work (or study) and play are opposites. Work and play are inexorably linked, at least the kind of creative work in which we are engaged today and hope to prepare our children for. As Bill Buxton likes to say, "These things are far too important to take seriously. We need to be able to play."

The opposite of play (and work) is depression
In this TED talk below, Dr. Stuart Brown reminds us that "The opposite of play is not work, it's depression." Brown makes many good points concerning the importance of play, not just for children but for all of us. Ironically, the presentation could have been even better if Dr. Brown had interjected more play into the actual talk (like Tim Brown did in his talk on play and creativity), but still the talk is very much worth watching for the issues raised.

A spirit of play connects
Play creates a relaxed feeling of connection between presenter and audience and among the audience members themselves. Play fosters a collective experience of engagement with the content. In this example below, the legendary Bobby McFerrin illustrates the power of the pentatonic scale (and expectations, etc.) not by sitting and talking about it, but by standing up and getting the audience involved. Watch it.

It starts with not taking yourself so &^%$#@! seriously
Our topic may be very serious indeed. Regardless of the topic, we should take the needs of the audience and the material quite seriously. However, good things happen when we stop taking ourselves so seriously. It's OK to have fun, it's OK to enjoy the experience and to expose some of your true self without the doubt and worry about what other people will think. What would happen if you removed the fear? This rare video clip below by one of my heroes, the brilliant (and quite humble) physicist Richard Feynman, is a wonderful example of play. If a "serious person" like a respected Nobel-prize winning scientist can go nuts on the bongos, why can't you and I let go of our egos just a little bit and have some fun too?

Bringing a spirit of play to work — and the feeling of exploration and discovery that it instills in the moment — improves learning and stimulates creative thinking. But often it's good to play for no other reason than to have great fun and feel good and recharged (as Dr. Feynman demonstrated). We can find inspiration in play itself, and we are inspired by those teachers and managers who understand that play is too important not to bring to work.


Kindergarten Is the Model for Lifelong Learning



The secret to great work is great play

Steve C.

Thanks for this post. I think a mention of Tokushima's awa odori would fit in nicely. Awa odori (fool's dance) is a festival where the general idea is that we are fools whether we dance or not so we may as well dance. Bon odori is not generally just about play, but I think the idea of everyone participating regardless of how you're dressed or how well you can dance applies.


Our little saying is "playing is learning by stealth" - it's one of the chapters in our 'zen and the heart of social media' book and also the fundamental principle of how we create our social media training courses...

As a fellow skin basher - loved the bongos clip :-)

Pamela Meyer

This is a terrific case for the power of play in life and work! Thank you for sharing the images and classic clips. We have been socialized that work and play are incompatible, when in fact, organizations that are thriving today have found a way to transcend the work-play dualism and create "playspace" in their daily conversations and collaborations. For more on the business case for playspace, check out the newly released "From Workplace to Playspace" http://tinyurl.com/yj8vrqa

Maren Kate

Great article! I really enjoyed this one and it has inspired me to go PLAY more today :)


Down-Aging has its benefits. Sounds like we all could use a little more playing!

Alan Schmitt

It's funny, I thought the quote was: "the opposite of play is not work, but depression", not the other way around. But maybe it's because I just want to value playing ;-)

Bruce Post

Thank you, thank you, thank you for posting the comment by Brenda Ueland. Her book "If You Want to Write" simply is one of the best publications ever, filled with practical wisdom about finding your True Self in a culture that wants to force you into some societal-determined conformity. As Brenda Ueland suggested and you are advocating, simply, go for it!


Can't even begin to tell you how much I appreciate the tone, spirit, and path of this post.

As a father (of two lilluns), an educator, a school planner/designer (here in the US and around the world), and founder of "Be Playful | Design + Studio," it hits home in a series of compelling ways!

My only regret is that I hadn't read it yesterday morning when I was working with Bruce Mau (of Bruce Mau Design) on a lovely elementary school in urban Chicago that is just woven together with play and the imagination of childhood. We'd have most certainly shared the post with our colleagues and the school's founder during the workshop itself. I know it'd have been a great idea-companion in the moment. But I'm planning on sharing it with them in the coming days. Know they'll be fans.

If time allows, I'd love to talk to you privately about an upcoming TEDx event (spring 2011) that I'm curating/organizing.

Our theme -- "The Wisdom of Play" -- seems to be something you/I would have a good time exploring together. Love to pick your brain about the actual event, as well as a series of global projects centered on "play" we're spearheading (which are related to the TEDx event itself).

You can track the event/theme/speakers via http://twitter.com/tedxbloomington + http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/TEDxBloomington/106050462750967 -- as well as simply keep an eye on the ever-evolving TEDxBloomington site: http://www.tedxbloomington.com/.

In the meantime, thanks for taking time to write this piece. A great last web-moment for me at the tail end of a full workweek. No doubt my TEDx planning team colleagues are going to be big fans of the post, too! Just lovely timing.

And I'll definitely be kicking around the "we can find inspiration in play itself" line you wrote at the end.



A great post Garr. This is a sentiment that is breaking through (and hopefully changing) much of today's business thinking. The old command and control method simply doesn't work anymore. This is especially true if companies are attempting to hire, retain, and motivate great people. Paying them more doesn't work; the work needs to also have meaning. People must also have the ability to more fully express themselves at work if they're expected to be innovative.


Great post! Sometimes it takes a child, a brief moment, or a blog post to remind us to loosen up and remember how to live. Sometimes we just get too caught up and forget that there doesn't have to be a dichotomy between working hard and playing hard. Thanks for the reminder!

Thu Pham

Dear Garr- my friend just sent me this video, which I think nicely prove how we are born to play: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lXh2n0aPyw It's so brilliant!

I guess once we understand our nature love for playing, our life can get easier yet much better :)

Thanks for the post!


Maybe the Bobby McFerrin clip can also be an illustration of how powerful it can be to find something in a presentation that resonates so strongly with an audience that they can anticipate what will happen and can take in and remember your material better. Things like the consistent use of slide transitions and section divider slides or presenting a series of question/answer, problem/solution pairings.

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