Transformational Play

On January 31st I was invited by my colleague Cheng Zeng (pictured above on the bottom row holding a bottle of wine) to lead an improvisational play session with people who were quarantined throughout China. The last thing I thought of that day was that 6 weeks later I, too, would be sheltering in place due to the COVID19 pandemic. Since then, I have been awed by the transformational power of play.

As a faculty member of the East Side Institute, I began to lead free play sessions with co-facilitators from around the world. We had sessions with more than 100 people playing together across borders, sharing our emotions and experiences in a virtual space. I also ran some smaller play sessions with facilitators, coaches, drama therapists, activists and educators to offer training in how to use play to help people connect and build community during these trying times in our world.

A human resources leader who I had worked with in the past, joined one of these sessions and subsequently brought me in to run a play session for employees who are struggling with the isolation of working from home, away from coworkers and who were experiencing a great deal of stress and anxiety. This same HR leader introduced me to a colleague of hers, and when I thanked her she responded, “I’m happy to pass along your services because you really are helping people through an important time in our nation’s history.” This is the power of play.

Over the past few months, I have volunteered, along with an amazing group of play and performance activists, improvisers, clowns, musicians, educators and therapists, to create the Global Play Brigade. We are now a grouping of 160 activists from over 40 countries. We believe that integrating and utilizing play, improvisation, clown, theater and therapeutics into everyday life is a vital methodology for creating hope, possibility, emotional well-being and development.

Sometimes people view play as frivolous or about “having fun,” but I like to say that play is serious business! In play we can be who we are and who we are not/who we are becoming at the same time. We can be isolated, anxious, frightened, angry and upset and yet – we can perform. We can play with all of the difficulties in our world to create new responses, new emotions and new ways to come together with our differences to create a better world.

Play at Work!

More and more people in business, academia and psychology are recognizing the importance of play throughout our life span. Why do adults need to play? We live in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. In play we create joy and laughter – we can go beyond ourselves.

As a play advocate, I was recently inspired by three days at The Association for the Study of Play conference last week. Sessions like Play Diplomacy; Therapeutic Play; and Physics, Philosophy and Psychology: Play is More Than Everyone Thinks gave expression to the ongoing recognition of the value of play for human beings and our well being.

Why play at work?

Every year Gallup polls show that over 50% of our workforce is disengaged. Research has found evidence that play at work is linked with less fatigue, boredom, stress, and burnout in individual workers. I am an advocate for play at work.

In the abstract of their article, Play at Work: An Integrative Review and Agenda for Future Research, Claire Petelczyc and her research colleagues make this observation:

“Play has gained increasing interest among progressive-minded managers as an important driver of motivation and productivity in work contexts.”

Play at work improves employee engagement and morale, and therefore productivity. When we play, we do things without knowing how. That is increasingly important, given that 85% of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yet.

Improvising is a form of adult play. Through improvisational activities, adults cultivate active listening skills and spontaneity, social-emotional intelligence and the ability to think on one’s feet, get out of your head and be present. Allowing time for playful learning and development activities at work opens up new possibilities and unleashes everyone’s innate creativity.

Keith Sawyer, an internationally known scientific expert on creativity, collaboration, and learning argues that companies will struggle to be innovative if they don’t have some ability for bottom-up, collaborative improvisational emergence to take place. In other words, improvisational play drives innovation in the workplace.

Play allow us to be who we are and who we are not, which is how human beings develop. We can create something new from what exists. We can play at being who we are becoming.

For more information on how to bring play into your workplace with ImprovNetworking, a playground for social development, please drop me a note. Join me in advocating for play!

Playing Around with How We Write

I wrote this blog post earlier this evening during a workshop sponsored by the East Side institute — Playing Around with How We Write:

Tonight I am attending an Advanced Writing Playground workshop led by my friend and colleague Carrie Lobman.  Carrie is an educator with an expertise in play and human development.  I am in a room with about 15 adults who are here to learn to “play with writing”.  In Carrie’s introduction she was talking about the activity of writing often being something that we do alone.  Among the many things that school does not do well is teaching us how to get help.  The other thing school doesn’t teach us to do well is editing, so many people think that they have to write a “finished product”.  In this workshop we are going to work with a partner and see what it is like if they help us with our writing.  We are taking 10 minutes to work on whatever it is that we’ve chosen to write in this workshop – some people are writing something new in the moment, as I am doing, while others are editing something they brought along to work on.  At any time during this 10 minutes of writing we can go up to anyone in the workshop and ask them for help and we’ve all agreed that we will be open to giving that person help.

Before we sat down to write we played a few improvisational games together to create a playful environment and to get to know each other a bit.  One game called “Boom Baby” (a favorite of mine) was chosen by Carrie because in it we create poetry together.  The participants are in a circle and we start out by “passing a clap” – you face the person to your right and look at each other and clap together simultaneously and that clap passes around the circle from person to person.  Now that everyone has learned that basic of the game we add words.  We are created a song in which the first two words are “boom baby” and here’s how we did it: The first pairing say “boom” simultaneously with their clap, the next two say “baby” simultaneously, and then the next person turns to the partner to their right and says a word that this pair will say together simultaneously and that continues around the circle.  We created our song as we clapped and spoke our words simultaneously going around the circle. 

Now Carrie had us pass what we wrote to the person sitting on our right and each of us had 10 minutes to write a poem about what the person to our left had written.  Here’s the poem that Rebecca wrote about what I had written thus far:

School sucks at a lot of things

School sucks at teaching us to get help

School sucks at editing with people

School likes “Finished Products”

And Solitary Activity

Carrie Lobman is my friend (who’s awesome)

She is teaching us how to do things that sucky school can’t.

So we play and play and play

In this advanced writing workshop

Flirting as adults do with neuroses

Making a pass at collective activity.

Playing boom baby boom boom

We need help

We don’t ask for help

We ask

We reject

We build on

We continue

We pass the clap


Sometimes hesitantly

Sometimes quickly.

We read some of the poems out loud, they are beautiful and funny and touching.  Now we have 10 minutes to take the poems that were written about what we wrote and continue in whatever way we want to.  So I’ve retyped Rebecca’s poem and got emotional in doing so.  An unexpected intimacy!  The room is quiet in a way that is so appealing.  I’m finding that writing in a room of writers is a delicious experience.  I’m wondering how to keep that going in those moments that writing is frustrating, when I feel like I have not a thought in my mind or a word to write down.

I’m also wondering if this is helpful to someone reading this blog post.  What would it be like to write a poetic version of a blog post?  Playing with the writing of this blog is awfully fun but will I really hit the “post” button and post this?  Will I edit all of this out?  What will happen next?

I’m trying not to make this too instrumental and connect the dots to business applications, as this blog is “musings on performance and business”.  Perhaps this evening I am musing on musing.  Musing on play.  Playing with musing.  Playing with writing.

Once Carrie told me that when I get stuck writing I should try writing a poem.

The next thing Carrie asked us to do is for the person to the right of us to continue writing what it was that we had written so far in the style in which we were writing.  So Rebecca continued writing this blog post from where I stopped … “Once Carrie told me that when I get stuck writing I should try writing a poem.”

So one day when I did get stuck, I tried Carrie’s idea and I wrote a poem.  I wasn’t sure what I was going to write.  I didn’t even know if I wanted to be writing at all. I kind of wanted to go for an ice cream.  But I didn’t do it.  I did the harder thing: I wrote a poem.  The poem was a little funny and a little sad.  After I finished it I wasn’t sure if I knew what I had wrote.  So I went for a walk and thought about the poem and the blog.  The day was so beautiful and warm.  The flowers were blooming in tiny white and pink clusters.  People were out and about eating their lunch on park benches, sauntering with their portable devices, and laughing like the cold winds of winter were not here, in this very spot, only a few weeks ago.

I thought about going back.  I thought again about the blog.  I felt refreshed; ready to write again.  Perhaps, I will tell the world about my walk and about how it has been a part of my writing process.  After all, people like to read about other people’s creative processes.  Just think of all those “making of” documentaries on DVD movies.


Carrie Lobman, Ed.D., is associate professor at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education and the East Side Institute’s director of pedagogy. She founded the Institute’s Developing Teachers Fellowship Program and currently supervises NYC public and charter schoolteachers. She is a sought-after workshop leader and frequently presents to meetings of the American Educational Research Association, The Association for the Study of Play and the International Society for Cultural and Activity Research. She is co-author of Unscripted Learning: Using Improvisation Across the K-8 Curriculum.