The Secret Superpower of Play

Photo by Nik Shuliahin 

If you’re a leader and you’ve hit a wall, this article is about the secret superpower of play and why you need to get serious about play.


Yes, I did say play.


But this is serious! I hear you protest.


A global crisis with jobs and livelihoods on the line is no time for play. Children play. I’ve got important work to get on with and there’s so much of it, I don’t have the time!


It’s exactly because you’ve got ‘proper’ work to do that I urge you to read on. What if play could actually make you more productive, resilient and creative at work?


The tools we used to get through the first seven months of this crisis are not the same tools that we need for the next six, seven, twelve or eighteen months. Perhaps even longer, because none of us truly knows how long this pandemic will last.


Stuart Brown, the eminent doctor and play researcher, came to the conclusion that, “the opposite of play is not work, it is depression.”


In other words, play can be an antidote to depression. It can also be an incredible resource for resilience, creativity and productivity.


What do we mean by ‘play’?


Play is any activity where:


  • You spend time on it for no other purpose than engaging in the activity itself because it’s enjoyable and fun,


  • You easily lose track of time and don’t want it to end,


  • You feel free and uninhibited so you lose yourself in it.


The incredible thing about this definition is that it can include such a wide range of activities. Anything that fits the above three criteria can be considered play.


Hobbies like cycling, climbing, hiking, open water swimming, painting, crafts, pottery, singing, dancing, cooking or baking for fun not necessity, playing board games, collecting things, skateboarding, birdwatching, poetry, writing, fishing, golf, record collecting, DJ-ing, going to the theatre or opera, playing an instrument.


Play also includes much less structured activities like playing with a dog, hide and seek, wrestling or tickling games, cooing with a baby, water fights or food fights, imaginary play, ‘forest bathing’, taking a leisurely walk, building or creating things, having a long bath or shower, cuddles, sexual intimacy, free writing, hanging out with friends or family, ‘pottering’ in the garden or on the allotment.


What if ‘getting a lockdown puppy’ is actually a natural and instinctive response to our inbuilt, hardwired need for play? After all, it’s hard not to be playful with a puppy around.


The Importance of Play for Adaptability


It turns out that play is so much more important than we might think at first. Brown and his team found that play enables us to adapt and build capacities for resilience in an ever changing world.


Children do this very naturally.


I observed it recently in my five year old daughter and her friend. She was playing with two dolls with a friend and her friend said, “I don’t want to touch her, I don’t want to get coronavirus.” My daughter responded, “It’s OK, she’s not real, she’s a doll, you won’t get coronavirus. We’re just playing.”


Brown and his team researched the ‘play histories’ of some 6000 people and found that those who play a lot exhibit characteristics of light-heartedness, empathy, optimism, hope, courage and adaptability.


All qualities we need in abundance right now.


Brown also found that there is a dark side to play suppression in early childhood. He studied in detail the mass murderer, Charles Whitman, who in 1966 killed his mother and wife before going on to open fire indiscriminately on people at his university, killing 17 and wounding 41 others.


The multi-disciplinary team that collected data about Whitman included, amongst others, toxicologists, neurologist, sociologists, psychologist and psychiatrists.


Here’s what they found. “The committee investigating Charles Whitman’s life and motives unanimously identified his lifelong lack of play as a key factor in his homicidal actions.” (Dr Stuart Brown)


Play, Creativity and Work-based Productivity


There have been a range of studies linking more play to increased creativity in adults. Time spent in enjoyable, unsuppressed play seems to unleash creativity in the aftermath.


In a work context, according to Brown, “when employees have the opportunity to play, they actually increase their productivity, engagement and morale.”


In three separate studies, researcher Samuel West found that introducing opportunities for play in an organisational context led to more co-operation and collaboration and more creativity afterwards.


Another study by Abramis found that game-based play, “may increase organizational involvement, job satisfaction, and a sense of competence and mastery of life.”


Some of the really big companies like Google, Facebook and LinkedIn have all cottoned on to this by creating access to play facilities for people working there from bowling allies to giant connect four games.


How to get more play into your life


If you’re an adult who’s forgotten what it means to play or who rarely has the time, I hope you’ve seen why you need to get serious about play.


In her influential book, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron suggests scheduling time into your diary each week to do something you love and would call play. This will be different for each person, but the key thing is that it is playful for you.


What would it be like for you to start to block out time each week – at least a couple of hours -just for you? And to see this as being just as important as some of your other important commitments.


A key to unlock this is to remember what you loved to do as a child. What did you naturally turn to when you were bored?


I used to love messing about in the woods, making dens and finding interesting bits and pieces, watching nature or climbing trees. I still find the woods to be my ‘play space’. I also used to love making potions out of a range of weird and wonderful things. As an adult, this has turned into making my own deodorant and moisturiser or creating new recipes to cook.


I’d love to hear what you do for play and how you make it a priority. Please let me know in the comments!




Abramis, D. J. (1990). Play in work: Childish hedonism or adult enthusiasm? American Behavioral Scientist, 33(3), 353–373, From:

Brown, Stuart and Vaughan, Christopher (2009) Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul. Pub: Avery Press.

Brown, Stuart. The National Institute for Play: