What Good is Play at Work?

When Jill Vialet — a social entrepreneur and founder of Playworks – talks to me about play, I usually scoff.

Not because I don’t believe in her mission – which provides recess resources for largely underprivileged schools – I do. The program was so successful that it received a $20M grant by the Robert Wood Johnson foundation a few years ago and now serves hundreds of schools across America.


I know play like I know nuclear fusion. In other words, I know of play, but no one who knows me could never call me a practitioner. That said, I’m becoming convinced as I see new dynamics in workplaces that play is important, even (especially?) at work. I found myself wanting to learn more about this that I know so little about. So, I asked Jill if she’d explore the topic with me, and here is what I learned:

Q: A growing meme says cultures of play at work allow for greater risk-taking. The thinking goes that organizations that can play also create the conditions for exploration, unconventional thinking, and innovation. Have you found that to be true? How so?

A: There’s a bunch of interesting writings by child psychologists on children’s risky play, and why it has stuck around, despite the evolutionary pressures towards it going away. The ideas about why seem really relevant to grown-ups in the work situation too:

–       That it gives kids the opportunity (in a relatively less dangerous situation) to handle emotions,

–       Deal with low-grade anxiousness,

–       Develop group coping skills and resolve conflicts –

These skills – you could call them EQ skills – are important when the stakes are higher.

Q: I remember some research that Gallup in 2010 that said that 89% of discipline related problems occur during lunch and research. Your idea is that fair play teaches social conduct that then improves classroom performance.

A: Well it makes sense, right? Think back to when you were having a problem with a colleague – it affected your ability to collaborate, to even hear their next idea, to ask them an open question — because you were so busy internally being upset by them by some social dynamic. Kids, adults – we’re all the same in that way. We need to have a way to share our emotions in a safe way.

The Nightline story that was done on Playworks showed how kids came alive through play.

We (Playworks) have a playful culture in our offices, with recess a couple of times a week. And the truth is that it takes attention and care to handle the group and social dynamics well – to make certain that people don’t feel left out, that the rules are fair and clear, or that folks aren’t taking the games too far.

My sense, though, is that one’s organizational culture SHOULD take attention to these kind of issues (human emotions), and that play let’s you puts it all out there and creates a framework for doing so.

Q: I remember during our walkntalks you have a game at your work —  of thumbs up/side/down — in the middle of a meeting which you use as a way to check in with one another. Talk about how that works. 

Yeah – one of the big things with kids is handling transitions thoughtfully, so we make a concerted effort to check in frequently. One-way is by taking the groups’ temperature – asking that they all show how they’re feeling at various intervals: thumbs up, thumbs sideways, thumbs down. Its all part of helping kids deal with their emotions, by first acknowledging they exist.

Q: Emotions are rarely discussed as valid at work, even in 2013. Can you define a relationship on validating emotions and actual work effectiveness? 

Of course. There’s tons of research that says positive emotions in a culture can help the participants get better outcomes including things like accomplishment, feelings of satisfaction and so on. And negative emotions; work much the same – fear, anger, stress, sadness, guilt, and hostility reduce the ability to be creative and to actually create. It of course then rolls into how you hire, how you do everything.

I think the nice thing about doing it [the check-in] via play is that it allows for a lighter touch. I think the easiest connection is that being allowed to bring your whole self to work is associated with greater productivity.

The thing that’s funny about discouraging people from acknowledging emotions at work is that this blows up in your face when there are challenges and emotions are unavoidable and people have no experience managing their emotions in the work context…

It’s also worth noting that I’m not talking about being super touchy-feely, just human.

[Side note to Yes & Know readers, you might want to check out the research/references section of the “emotions in the workplace” Wikipedia entry: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotions_in_the_workplace]


Q: Michelle Obama has of course focused on a Let’s move campaign which has drawn attention to this play as movement, and I know you’ve actually been invited to and done games on the White House lawn. If you could do anything – anything at all – what is the one thing you would change about our cultural views towards movement? 

A. The thing about play is that it affects so many different aspects of a child’s well being. I once heard a representative of the CDC say that if physical activity were a pill, it’d be the most prescribed medication on the planet. We see it at recess—giving kids a chance to play affects their physical well being, their social and emotional development and it helps with learning. Ultimately I came to focus on recess because I knew it had made a difference for me. At Playworks schools, we see a decrease in bullying, an increase in vigorous physical activity, an increase in students’ sense of safety, and a significant increase in actual instructional time (the kid equivalent of productive work time). If there is even a fraction of that kind of impact in the workplace, we’re talking about a risk that has the possibility of making a huge contribution to the bottom line.

Q: Talk to the skeptic part in everyone of us who says play is not for us “serious people”.
🙂 (Jill knows I’m one, so) Why play? Why at work? Why be this vulnerable?

I think my appeal to the skeptic is to lead from a place of empathy. Do you do your best work when you feel like you have some measure of control over the world around you? Choice? The opportunity to connect with other people and be actually seen and understood?

There’s a great book by Kay Jamison called Exuberance that delves into this very issue – that playful, exuberant people are often dismissed as not serious, and yet they are often the most innovative. I like the Brian Sutton Smith quote: “The opposite of play is not work. The opposite of play is depression.”


Well, there you have it – play at work is not in opposition, play at work is a way to create a space that is safe, connected, and engaged. In other words, play is a path to be fully alive. I’m making a commitment to learn about this thing I know so little about …


You should know that Jill just published her first book, called Recess Rules!

Do you remember what I said about supporting authors? Do it. (please, and thank you!)


This just ran on NPR as Jill shares her book and recent news:
All Things Considered: http://www.npr.org/2013/11/07/243713419/trim-recess-some-schools-hold-on-to-childs-play
And, to bring this home to a next/step/act/how, let me ask you — how might you take this idea of play into your work and/or workplace?


  1. What Good is Play at Work? - Nilofer Merchant |... - November 22, 2013

    […] Jill Vialet, the CEO of Playworks shares that play at work is not in opposition, play at work is a way to create space that is safe, connected, and engaged.  […]

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