The Power of Play
“You learn more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” – Plato
The Learning Curve
What is the correlation between learning and play?
Team building and training games have been played for centuries. The game of chess (chess being the Persian word for king) is a training game created sometime in the 4th Century to teach military and political leaders how to strategize. Today team building and training companies offer all kinds of games designed to make better workers, thinkers and team players. All of them involve play and learning. So how exactly are play and learning related? To answer this question psychologists researching the fields of human behavior, development and learning examined the experts of play… children.
Naturally play is fun for children. However, it’s also serious business. Children use play to explore the world and practice skills… Children engaged in cooperative play take parts or play roles, follow rules, and lead or follow others. Playing this way helps them learn to handle cooperation and competition, conflicts, power, role taking, and communication… Cooperative play is a big step toward participating in social life. It’s easy for adults to dismiss play as silly or trivial. In fact, play is one of the most important [human] activities…” (Kaplan, 1998)
The many studies on how people learn indicate that children are the fastest and most enthusiastic of learners. On average it is around the age of 16 that learning starts to slow and somewhere in the 20’s people start to coast. Deterioration (loss) of knowledge generally begins around the age of 40.
A study done by the Harvard Business School showed that graduating students did their best work and were the most successful in the first ten years after graduating. After ten years their accomplishments tended to be less frequent and less spectacular.
Piaget (considered one of the foremost authorities on cognitive development) divided the human growth process into four stages. In the earliest stage of learning children “assimilate” knowledge; they take in and incorporate their environment. In later stages children begin to “accommodate”; meaning they adapt their views and modify their understandings as they receive new or more in-depth information on their environment. And then as the children develop further they start to take short cuts. They organize their information into patterns or “schemes”. Assumptions are made based on past experience and previously accumulated knowledge. By adulthood humans have begun to think logically but in so doing they play less, explore less, learn less and begin to operate on assumptions based on information they have already gathered. This is fine for a time until the world starts to pass them by. “That’s not they way we did it in my day.”
Eric Erickson observed that if an individual does not continue to grow intellectually and emotionally throughout their life then eventually psychosocial stagnation occurs, followed by a sense of disgust, dissatisfaction and ultimately despair.
So can adults avoid stagnation and continue to grow and learn? Absolutely! Studies have shown that the “learning curve” is not a foregone conclusion. A person in good physical and mental health can continue to learn and grow well into maturity, and play is one of the best tools available to us.
The Benefits of Play
So why is play such a wonderful learning tool?
1. It’s involving. The best way to learn new skills is through action; doing things. Test results have shown that individuals listening to an instructor, retained only 20% of what they heard. Similar results were found with all types of passive learning including reading, watching a demonstration, looking at illustrations, etc. However, tests showed that participants involved in an active learning process such as doing the actual job, doing a simulation, giving a dramatic presentation, etc. retained 90% of the information. (University of Texas, 1987) Playing a training game, participating in a simulation, role playing or playing a team building program involves the participants in active learning.
2. It’s a safe environment. Much can be learned by making mistakes. On his way to making the light bulb, Edison discovered over 1,800 ways not to build one. One of Madame Curie’s failures was radium. Columbus was looking for India. Every one of these mistakes had valuable lessons and benefits attached to them. Woody Allen is quoted as saying, “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.” The problem is that while big advances come from big risks not all employers are forgiving about mistakes. While some employers may go so far as to encourage employees to try new things there would still be repercussions if the biggest account was lost, or the marketing scheme failed, or the product development stage took much longer than projected. Play offers participants a safe environment in which to explore, risk, try new ideas and make mistakes without the threat of termination or castigation.
3. Team Dynamics. Team play is a means by which the dynamics of a group may be examined in a controlled environment. Every group/team develops a personality of its own. It is a gestalt; the whole is greater than the sum of all its parts. How does this group function, work, produce, collaborate, communicate, and plan? How does this group make decisions? What are its weaknesses and what are its strengths? What roles do the various members take in different situations? How does the group adapt to change? All these questions and more can be examined in a play environment.
4. Self-Awareness. Just as a team can be examined in a play environment, so too can the individual members. Participants are afforded an opportunity to try their hand at new experiences and new ideas. This makes for moments of self-examination and awareness. It also affords team members an opportunity to see their teammates in a new light. I can’t count how many times over the years I have heard statements such as, “I had no idea Harry was so creative!” or “Who knew Mary could lead?” Plato said, “You learn more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” An increased awareness of ourselves and those around us can only improve the effectiveness of a team and open up exciting new possibilities.
5. Building Trust. As team members become more familiar with their fellow teammates, more aware of the team dynamics, and begin to understand where they fit into the team, they become more comfortable. Allowing teams to play together in a play environment builds trust within the team.
6. The Value of the Team. Team play is an excellent tool for convincing the skeptics of the value of teamwork. Many workers are so competitive or so inexperienced with working on a team that they doubt the benefits of teamwork. This makes for hesitation in sharing information and responsibilities. Team building games afford these skeptics the opportunity to observe first-hand how two (or more) heads are better than one and how sharing information and responsibilities can bring amazing results. Team play also affords participants an opportunity to discover the value of diversity. The more diverse a team the more successful it tends to be, as it has a broader knowledge base upon which to draw when solving problems or achieving goals.
7. Pleasure. Studies have shown that there is a direct correlation between pleasure and productivity. “Surprise, surprise! What government agency funded that study and where do I submit my grant application?” It makes perfect sense that pleasure would be a powerful motivator. The pleasure of playing a game and learning through play can revitalize a group and build morale. Pleasure also effects a commitment in the participants to the game and causes them to learn more and retain it longer.
You know that I don’t believe that anyone has ever taught anything to anyone. I question the efficacy of teaching… …maybe a teacher is a facilitator, a person who puts things down and shows people how exciting and wonderful it is and asks them to eat. (Carl Rogers)
At The Ant & the Grasshopper we strive to prepare the most exciting, enticing and delicious learning games possible. Once the banquet has been served it is simply a question of letting the participants feast. Could learning be any more pleasurable?
8. Specific lessons. Each team building program has its own lessons, skills and experiences that the participants learn by playing the game. Some of these are group lessons and some are individual lessons. Some focus on problem-solving skills, some on communications skills, and some on organizational skills. The list goes on and on.
Besides being a great learning tool there are a number of benefits associated with play including but not limited to it’s power to boost morale and it’s power to tap into a part of the brain that may be under utilized in the workplace. That is the part of the brain that uses imagination, creativity and intuition. Long thought to be the part of the brain useful only in the artistic world, we now know that right brain thinking is a legitimate and influential skill in the business world. After all, where would we be without innovative thinkers such as Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Walt Disney and so many others who never lost the joy or forgot the power of play.