Play Study


“Play” is kind of a nebulous term - both in the haziness of the edges that try to define it and in the vastness of its scope and reach. Like a conceptual nebula of galactic proportions, Play forms the background to, and intertwines with, so much of life… From the biology that drives our learning and healthy development to the way we explore, create and connect - Play is there, playing its role. 

However, like any gaseous substance (a fart included), it is hard to pin down. My work, if not to pin it down, is to try to get some grip of what I can learn by exploring what it means to play, why we play, how we play, what playing can be useful for, the value of being playful, how to cultivate playfulness. Wherever play reveals a thread of it's involvement, that is my field of study. 

In order to traverse the conceptual nebula I have defined eight broad categories to use as research vessels:

1. The Science and Philosophy of Play
2. Games
3. Art, Craft, Toys and Tools
4. Performance
5. Play Therapy and Education
6. Playfulness
7. Play Spaces
8. Purposeful Play
9. Not Play

These overlap, could be broken into subcategories or arranged differently. They may change but for now they offer a way forward. As I learn more, I have more to play with in my work as an educator and facilitator. Using play-based methodologies that I borrow from others or develop myself, I deliver professional development programs, corporate training and various other classes, workshops and courses.  This page is about the ideas, visit Play Work to hear more about the work.


1. Play Science and Philosophy

The Science of Play focuses on the work of academics and researchers in evolutionary biology, sociology, psychology and neuroscience. Various studies across the animal kingdom and with human beings indicate the role of youthful play in brain development, physical coordination, social bonding, survival skills, psychological development, creativity and our ability to learn.

The Philosophy of Play explores how culture and civilisation may be underpinned by a drive to play, how a deeper look at games may help provide insight to our sense of meaning, purpose and existence, how a more playful approach to life can ignite deeper connectedness and creativity. While these may sound like heady topics, the focus on play helps to make these ideas more accessible and engaging.


2. Games

Games are perhaps the best-defined aspect of the play world. They are also easily underestimated for their apparent frivolity. In truth, the study of games and game design offers rich and useful tools for analysing problems and finding solutions. When crafting interactions between people or between people and systems, game design offers conceptual structures that account for the deeper complexity of interaction on a formal, social, emotional and cultural level. Structured games, open games, board games, social games and video games all offer different tools for designing any system that includes interaction and communication or choice and consequence. Game Theory (a more formally defined field of study) is often applied in board rooms and war rooms when trying to understand enemies, anticipate their choices and select the best moves available in beating enemies both corporate and military. A deeper study of games can provide incredible tools for thinking and creating. I am constantly on the hunt for new games and ways of playing them.


3. Art, Craft, Toys and Tools

The connection between the hand and the mind is a special one. Thinking and doing are activities less easily separated than we might appreciate. This area looks at how physical objects help inspire play while they help us to think and learn. How can we use puzzles, balls, LEGO and craft to improve our work and our life?

As I delve deeper I am finding new tools being specifically created for all kinds of interesting uses; from thinking differently to creating connection and empathy between players. While we often pack away our arts and craft supplies after childhood (if we’ve decided it won’t be our profession), playing with craft, puzzles and toys into adulthood can help keep the brain active, encourage healthy social interaction and can measurably improve mental health.


4. Performance

Performance includes the dramatic arts of improvisation, role playing, clowning, various (unscripted) theatre forms and storytelling. These performance styles offer a pathway to personal growth by developing our imagination, resilience to change, spontaneity and ability to create social connection. These performance styles are a training ground for navigating life’s social and emotional challenges. As embodied methodologies, they are also good for physical and mental health by releasing endorphins, moving blood around the body and stretching muscles.

In business, these performance styles help bring teams together, develop personal confidence and explore social and structural tensions in a safe and productive way. At the more radical end of this area of interest, we find a theory of theatre that will change the way we understand our role in society. At the very least, these are fun and help us to expand our comfort zones.  


5. Play Therapy and Education

Unsurprisingly, early childhood education dominates the study of play. Playwork Development is a growing area of expertise (particularly in the UK) and focuses on training teachers and child-workers to better understand (and facilitate) how children learn and grow through play. A growing movement of educators are fighting against the trend in mainstream education to fill up learning time with activities rather than time to play freely. At the forefront are Scandinavian countries who follow a markedly different education philosophy to the major Western countries, choosing to reduce school hours and homework amounts. The results are placing these countries ahead of the rest in education outcomes.

My study of play-work in early childhood development and education aims to apply relevant concepts to adult life and learning. Play therapy for adults is nascent but may prove to be a growing trend in adult therapy generally. While it’s not quite stealing candy from a baby, stealing playwork principles from early childhood development has been fruitful.


6. Playfulness

This section looks at our personal approach to play and how play features into our lifestyle in the broadest sense. This includes how, why and when we play, who we play with and what we like to play. More specifically, I am looking at the following ideas; Stuart Brown’s work in understand Play Personas derived from our Play Histories, Bernard Suits’ definition of a lusory attitude, Bertrand Russell’s treatise on Idleness, the archetype of The Fool throughout history and the role of humour and trickery in taking us out of everyday life. While these ideas cut across all the other categories, they sit nicely together under “Playfulness”.


7. Play Spaces

Play Spaces is about the physical and non-physical space in which play occurs. This includes physical playgrounds, virtual playgrounds, workplace design, interior design and the atmosphere required for people to play properly. In understanding more about the architecture that surrounds and fosters play, we can better identify environmental factors that help or hinder play, and we can create spaces for people to play with greater intention.


8. Purposeful Play

Purposelessness is often included in definitions of play, and yet there are so many reasons to play. Purposeful Play focuses on the application of the above in our work. It includes looking at case studies and examples of bringing play theory and methodologies into the world of business. The intersection of Play and Work also requires a broader understanding of the concepts, tools, approaches and ideas used in business strategy, tactics and management. This category allows play and business to be looked at side by side.


Not Play

In studying Play, I must develop an understanding of what is not play.  There are many interesting grey areas, fine lines and close calls between what is play and what is not. This is the category for that. It's also important in ensuring that not everything becomes play, like a man with a hammer and something about nails.