The Power of Play

“The ability to ‘make believe’ takes people’s minds to places where no one has gone before.” – Marie Hartwell-Walker

For a while now, I’ve been wanting to explore the science behind the power of play and its transformational effect on our thinking patterns. I have always believed that “play” has the ability to break us out of our routine, reflexive ways of moving through our lives. In recent weeks I realized there has never been a better time to explore this. As I watch my university-aged kids struggle to manage their anxiety in order to focus on writing their final papers, and my own struggles to focus on my daily work, now more than ever, we need to tap the power of play in our work and in our personal lives.

Imaginative Thinking Shortcuts

Childhood Play

When I was a kid, the part of my brain that allows imagination to occur was switched on high. When I stepped out of the house to roam my inner-city neighborhood, The Annex, with my friends, we drew secret maps of our neighborhood and imagined magical people living in those secret alleys and backyards, we embodied characters we’d read about, and imagined we were up in space with the crew of Star Trek.


Four year-old me in our backyard sandbox where my dad made up a story about Michael The Magic Mouse, who apparently lived in the sandbox in a secret world beneath my world. I was always digging holes hoping I could visit his world.


I must be 7 or 8 in this photo (the one dressed up as a high fashion Spaghetti Western lady), with my brother and my best friend Katie on the left.


11year-old me being photo bombed by my brother, Johnny.

Grownups Need Play Too!

As a child, imagination is critical to the development of empathy because it allows children to imagine what it might be like to be someone else. In fact, kids don’t just wonder about what it’s like to be someone else, they actually role play and this is where the magic happens. They use their imagination to create new realities for the characters they are playing. It’s in these new realities that they imagine new solutions for the challenges that these characters face.

Empathy leads to the second powerful gift of play: divergent thinking. Imaginary play allows our brain to diverge from rote and mundane thinking, instead promoting creative problem-solving. When we play, we’re exploring ‘What If’ scenarios and through that process, we’re practicing divergent problem solving, through the exploration of many potential solutions.

Now more than ever, we need the benefits of play and imagination in our daily lives. One of the most powerful benefits of play is to give us a break from experiencing stress and anxiety. When we allow our brain to diverge from our daily work tasks, we turn down the executive brain function (our critical, judging mind), allowing our “anything is possible” brain function to flourish. It’s in a moment of imagination that we can move into a state of flow, unencumbered by reality.

The Science Behind The Power of Play

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny!’” – Isaac Asimov

So how does the brain facilitate the engagement of our imagination? For all you science nerds, it works like this…

During creative thought, norepinephrine (responsible for long term memory retrieval) is greatly reduced, which helps the brain forget what it already knows and makes it open for new connections and new ideas to form. It literally stops our past memories from getting in the way of new ideas! And, our self-critical brain function (the prefrontal cortex) is muted, so we can’t get in the way of our new thinking. It’s as though we have two selves, the creative and inventive self and the critical, judging, practical self. For creative divergent thinking to occur, our critical judging self needs to take a nap.

But the best news of all is that play actually makes you smarter! Your brain’s neuroplasticity improves during imaginative play. When you play, your brain produces higher levels of growth factors that help neurons grow and create more branches, increasing the complexity and size of the pre-frontal cortex (responsible for the development of empathy and self-control). Play also enlarges areas of the brain responsible for memory and learning. The more we play the smarter, healthier and more connected we feel!

The Power of Play Made Easy

“To stimulate creativity, one must develop childlike inclination for play and the childlike desire for recognition” Albert Einstein

Here are some simple Power of Play activities to play around with (pun intended), while you’re working from home:

  • Laughter Makes You More Effective at Problem Solving. Karl Duncker’s Candle Problem proves that you’ll be more effective at finding innovative solutions and problem solving, if you’ve laughed for a few minutes before tackling a challenge. Right now, there are tons of hilarious video clips circulating. Before tackling your next work challenge, watch one. Here are some links to get you started:
  • Option B  
  • Dancing Man Before and After COVID-19
  • Virtual Math Class
  • News Bloopers
  • Doodling Helps You Make New Connections. Let your mind get lost for a few minutes in a doodle. Set your hand free and see what emerges. Then, take a few minutes to find the story hiding inside your doodle. Jot your story notes around your doodle and then post it on your wall. One day when you are taking an Imagination break, you can look across your doodles and, just like Darwin did with the notes and drawings he scribbled in his Commonplace Book, you’ll see new connections and ideas emerge.
  • Pipe Cleaner Doodling in 3-D. Pipe cleaners are like doodling in 3-D. We have a jar of them in every collaboration space at Fresh Squeezed Ideas. These are a must have for layered creative thinking – they allow the brain to freeform, while collaborating and building on others ideas.
  • Play-Doh Freeform Sculpting. If you have small kids, you likely have Play-Doh. And if you don’t, it’s easy to make, there are tons of recipes online. Keep it handy at your desk and you can reach for it to create when you’re feeling like your brain needs a re-fresh.
  • Dancing Releases Dopamine! Get up and dance for 5 mins! Put on your favorite dance song and jump and jive. No one will see you and you’ll be energized and smiling and feeling the power of a hit of dopamine (the reward hormone).
  • Puzzling Mind-Shift. Pull out an old puzzle, dump the box of pieces on a table and you’ll be amazed at the pull of the puzzle to solve the challenge of finding just a few pieces that fit. But the really challenging part will be breaking free from the need to find “just one more” piece. And the gift will be a refreshed spirit and brain.
  • Instagram ‘What If’ Scenarios. This is a modification of a warm-up exercise we use during collaboration, where we have a series of unrelated pictures on the table and each person chooses two images. They then freeform a story that ties the two images together. The same exercise can be done using Instagram. Scroll through for 10 seconds and choose two posts, then let your brain freeform and tell yourself the story that emerges.

We’d love to build a shared bank of playful tips and tricks. Let us know what you’re doing for stimulating imagination and team collaboration.

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