“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.
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.
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 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!
“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:
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.