Play To Learn

Remember as a child how much of your time involved play? Whether it involved Barbies, Legos, or creating an empire in your backyard based off a leaf-based currency, you were able to do silly things just for the sake of silly things. And you learned. You learned how to create something new–something that hadn’t existed before.

And through play, we learned. We learned about physics, communication, empathy, and even a little economics. And these lessons stuck with us long after playtime was over.

So why did we stop playing? And how can we use play in our lives to get back to that creative place we came from?

Why Did We Stop Playing?

So why did we stop playing? What made us “grow up” and put away our childish ways?

We Think We’re Too Old

There’s a perception that once you become an adult or even a teenager, learning and fun are separate. Most classes teach according to books. And these books push quizzes, definitions and homework problems. Play is left for after school hours. Well, for the few after school hours you have once your homework is done.

Play is something done for it’s own sake.

-Dr Stewart Brown


We Don’t Want to Waste Time

The push to be productive and disciplined wants us to believe that not a moment should be wasted.

Especially with the additions of jobs, rent, and bills to pay, play is seen as something that is not as important.

What’s Wrong With The Way We Try To Learn?

When it comes to adult learning, typically we take a class, run through a tutorial, or make the 375,034th version of the same To-Do list app that everyone else has made.

Does it work? Sure. But it doesn’t inspire. It doesn’t instill a sense of excitement where you’re creating something new or learning through real trial and error.

How Can We Learn With Play?

How do you learn a new gadget that you buy? Do you read the manual? or do you (Gasp!) play with it?

That same learning/exploring mentality can be used in our everyday lives. So how can we use play to learn more effectively?

Brainstorm Learning Activities

So you want to learn something new. How exactly can you use play to learn? It’s simple, yet does take a stretch of the imagination.

First, consider some of the things you want to learn right now. Perhaps it’s learning a foreign language, master your public speaking skills, or learn video editing skills.

Next, go through the following list and see if you can brainstorm different ways of making learning fun.

  1. What is a way to involve the family? For example, learn about video editing by creating and editing a movie with your kids.
  2. How can you include additional interests? If you’re a software engineer that wants to learn about CI/CD and happen to love cats, what if you created a CI/CD pipeline to publish new cat gifs on a site for your friends and family? They’ll love it!
  3. What’s another way to get this skill? For public speaking, perhaps instead of practicing speeches or taking a public speaking class, you can join an Improv class. And get more practice for your Spanish class by watching and then acting out a foreign film with your friends.

Really get out there and find some weird ideas related to what you’re learning. Try something crazy just for fun’s sake and see where it takes you.

Add Play To Your Schedule

OK, so maybe the ideas above are too much of a stretch. You want more structure. You like to be told how to have fun.
Well then here you go. Here are some guidelines for play.

  1. Set aside 30 minutes a day. Most of you have it. It’s that 30 minutes to several hours you have that you spend staring at your phone or watching tv.
  2. Rotate between structured play (board games, coloring, assembling models) and unstructured (imagine new worlds, draw things that don’t exist, try to do summersaults – with care).

Or try something in a different domain. Don’t even worry about transferring the knowledge to your current job. Take up painting, drawing or draw the most amazingly ugly sidewalk chalk art. Wire up your toaster oven so that it controls your tv. OK, maybe don’t do that one. It sounds like a fire hazard.

Put your phone away and get lost in it. Grab a coloring book and some crayons. Or just blank paper. Ignore everything but what you’re working on and remember what it’s like to really focus on something. What it feels like to get lost in your work.

Play at Work

I was at a presentation talking about a successful hackathon that a company had. One of the first questions asked, “How do you make sure that they do something that is relevant to the company?” You don’t! Let them have fun and produce something. Let the hackers get excited about building what they think is fun. But please don’t let them just make a powerpoint.

Or sometimes companies give free time to work on whatever someone wants. Again, there is usually a request that the time is spent on work-related projects. Or something that can benefit the company. And then do you know what often happens? No one asks about what you did. How about you can do anything you want, but you have to show it off. Sure, most people will create things that have a functional use. But some like me just end up using the time reading articles and catching up on email.

– opportunities for social interactions with people you don’t normally work with
– encourage creative thinking – have puzzles, games, and things sitting out.
– Take short breaks, get up and play.

Have a finished product for that sweet sense of accomplishment.
Go to a class at a makerspace. Take a cooking class. wine appreciation.

Get Ready For Playtime!

We know that children learn from play. But when did we decide that it’s no longer necessary or professional enough for adults?

Take advantage of play by combining your creative and logical sides. And have fun!