What did you buy with your first paycheque from a new job? Some people buy a new video game, indulge in a manicure, or treat a friend to lunch. I bought a box of Lego.

LEGO® CLASSIC LEGO® CREATIVE BRICKS 10692

Several weeks into my new full-time job, I was in Wal-Mart one weekend when I noticed a young boy and his father standing in front of a book display. On top of the book display sat a box of Legos, probably abandoned by another customer. The father and son spent several minutes examining and discussing the box of Lego, before they ambled away without it. That’s when I, a 23 year-old woman, dashed over and added the box to my basket.

You see, I’ve been eyeing this box of Lego for a couple weeks. And by the way – LEGO® CLASSIC LEGO® CREATIVE BRICKS 10692 is neither rare or expensive – you can buy it at any toy or department store. It comes with 221 Lego bricks in 29 different colours. It’s not even a model set, so it requires few instructions – just a lot of imagination.

In a word, I was gleeful as I walked to the check out in Wal-Mart. By the time I reached home, I’d reverted into a 9 year-old girl ready to play. And that’s exactly what I wanted to happen.

I’ve been fascinated by the concept of “play” for a while. And I’m not the only one. In the last several years, Toronto has become home to board game cafés, bars with arcade games, escape rooms, and even archery dodgeball! There’s also Pursuit OCR, an indoor playground for adults complete with a ball pit. And in June 2017, Cineplex opened The Rec Room: an entertainment complex with arcade games, VR games, ping pong and pool tables.

"We don't stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing" - Pursuit OCR
Image via Bartender Atlas

All these places are great for de-stressing after a long work day, or unwinding with friends on the weekend. But my fascination with play doesn’t separate it from work. Instead it makes intentional space for it.

I was first piqued by the idea of work and play after I read Austin Kleon’s book for creatives, Steal Like An Artist. Kleon wrote a chapter called “Use Your Hands” and it starts with quote from his favourite cartoonist, “In the digital age, don’t forget to use your digits.”

Kleon encourages creatives to set up two work-spaces: one digital and one analog. Nothing electronic is allowed in the analog work-space, so instead it’s occupied with sticky notes, markers, pens and index cards. You could even have a tub of Play-Doh there. When we run into roadblocks in the digital work-space or we need to generate ideas, we can turn to the analog work-space to get our bodies and minds moving.

Kleon advocates the importance of incorporating our bodies into our work because the best work should feel like play.

“We tend to compartmentalize our lives to create a sense of balance. Work means boring, mind-numbing tasks. Play equates to the spare time we have to watch a movie. Exercise is defined by running on a treadmill. But work and play don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Sometimes, they can work together to help you achieve a breakthrough.” – Melissa Chu

I find this intriguing.

I’d argue that creativity is a balance of working, learning, and playing. And guess what? The balance between work, learning and play happens every day in classrooms around the world.

Steven Johnson, author of Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, explains why play is so valuable in the classroom. He says, “If you’re just trying to get people to learn things, [then] formulas, facts, lectures, and tests are a great way to do it. If you’re trying to get people to think creatively and respond to situations that you can’t anticipate, then play is much better.”

So if we balance work, learning, and play at school, why can’t we do it in the workplace? What happens when we do?

Here’s an answer: Google. Amazon. Facebook. These innovative organizations hire and retain the best creative talent – and yes, having ping-pong and foosball tables may have something to do with it. It’s one of the reasons why Johnson thinks these companies are successful.

He explains, “They’ve created an environment where the mind is constantly at play, even if it’s doing serious work…When we play, we are opening ourselves up to experiences that are going to surprise us. The fun of play, particularly playing games, is developing resilient, adaptive strategies to respond to unpredictable events.

If I was an employer, I’d want to hire and retain resilient, adaptive and creative employees, wouldn’t you?

“Creative results often stem from creative processes.” – Melissa Chu

But I’m just an employee. And while creativity is one of my core values, I don’t think suggesting a hockey table for the office will go over well.

And yet, I strive to embrace playfulness in my communications work. I’m excited at the possibilities that await in the intersection of work, learning, and play. So how do I introduce play into my work, or at least a reminder to be curious, take risks, and embrace challenges?

Well, it leads us back to my box of Legos from Wal-Mart.

Earlier this year, I watched a documentary about The Lego Group, the secretive, innovative, family-owned company behind the colorful brick toys. At The Lego Group headquarters, you’ll find little bowls of Lego bricks around their open-space offices. These bowls encourage Lego employees to take a break (#selfcare), spend time with the product, and to engage and innovate with their colleagues. 

That’s why on my desk at work, between my two computer screens, sits a little coffee mug of Lego. When I’m stressed or strategizing, I reach inside and start playing with some of the pieces. It’s my own way of taking a break from my digital work-space (my computer screen) and spending time in an analog work-space.

 

Gray mug of Lego that I keep on my desk at work

 

On my computer stand, I also have a mini lighthouse made of Lego. It serves as a tangible reminder of my leadership metaphor and the type of communications professional I want to be.

 

 

I may be judged or teased for it, but my little mug of Lego reminds me that the best way to get my mind moving is to get my body moving.

My little mug of Lego reminds me to practice self-care at work instead of just after work.

Most importantly, my little mug of Lego reminds me of all the possibilities that await when I let my inner 9 year-old out…to work AND play.


More on play:

Why Ambition is Overrated When it Comes to Innovation (Beth Comstock’s interview with Steven Johnson, author of Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World) https://heleo.com/conversation-why-ambition-is-overrated-when-it-comes-to-innovation/14588/

Want to Be Creative? Stop Being So Serious https://www.thriveglobal.com/stories/25687-want-to-be-creative-stop-being-so-serious

Core Values of The Lego Group https://www.lego.com/en-us/aboutus/lego-group/the_lego_brand

WATCH: Beyond the Brick: A Lego Documentary

WATCH: Lucy Kellaway tours the Lego Office (at 9:07 you can see a bowl of bricks on a table)