Playing to learn — and learning to play

I’ve just come back from a workshop held at the FlyingLab — a simulator/ lab/play space set up by Lufthansa to explore innovation possibilities into the future. Housed in an old leather factory the space is open, configurable and fun! Pieces of aircraft cabin, chairs to try out new VR possibilities, different spaces to explore different stages in the customer journey, everywhere covered in post-its, white board and scribbles.

The concept is typical of the kind of environment which public and private sector organizations are increasingly working with — innovation spaces. But these aren’t simply corporate fun parks — there’s a serious purpose behind them. Play is a valuable if untapped resource — and there’s some important science underpinning why it is worth paying attention to.

Watch any group of kids at play and you can remind yourself that this is something which comes naturally. It should do; evolutionary psychologists are pretty clear that the ability to play (and therefore imagine and simulate a variety of situations) developed as an important adaptive mechanism. Kids play because they are hard-wired to do so; reward circuits in the brain reinforce the experience with suitable chemicals to ensure it is seen as something pleasurable which they will want to repeat.

It’s not just kids; all mammals display similar behaviour and it raises an important question. Why? Play is costly in terms of energy so why have they evolved to retain this capacity? The argument is that play is not accidental but instead serves several important purposes:

It enables them to

· practice skills that are essential to their survival and reproduction;

· learn to cope physically and emotionally with unexpected, potentially harmful events;

· reduce hostility and enable cooperation.

· generate new, sometimes useful creations

All of which could be pretty useful in the process of coming up with ideas and turning those into value — innovation.

Experimentation matters…

Innovation is all about experiment and we’ve learned how important that is — playing with ideas, (especially at their early stages), tossing concepts around in brainstorming sessions, realising the best of them through prototypes which become boundary objects around which others can help elaborate and develop our innovation. Simulating tricky situations without the risk, testing hypotheses and not being afraid to fail.

And there’s a growing body of evidence to support this. Books talking about ‘Serious play’ or reminding us that ‘Experimentation matters’; others talking about the way ‘The Playful Entrepreneur’ is often the architect of major change. There are communities of practice around using and developing games for serious organizational purposes including innovation; a host of workshop and training programmes designed to embed skills and practices associated with effective play. This widespread practice, incorporated in bootcamps, hackathons and other activities has, at its heart, a deep research base in the psychology of problem exploration and open-ended solution development. Giving people time and space to play is linked to successful examples of innovation — things like PostIt notes and Gmail owe their origins to such approaches.

Play as exploration space

Play is about using physical and virtual elements to construct a safe space in which to explore new stuff. How do we move from vague notions, hunches, half-formed ideas towards something more workable? Not by a single leap but by a series of stepping-stones, bridges, scaffolding — essentially playing with ideas about the problem. Kids do this naturally — from the moment they can start to hold and examine an object they begin to explore it, trying out all its possibilities. And when they play together they multiply the possible options in inspiring fashion — a humble cardboard box can become a spaceship, a shop, a stage, an article of clothing, and it can change its identity with impressive speed!

But It’s not just about exploring the new; play also helps us deal with the existing but tricky stuff. Think about the way a piece of theatre works (interestingly, we call what we see in the theatre a ‘play’). It’s somewhere we can engage with, explore, experiment with some of the deepest emotional and interpersonal challenges we face in our worlds — our complex social and political relationships, our underlying motivations, making explicit what we would normally keep hidden. The ‘fun’ element may not always be apparent but using the simulator/ laboratory of the play gives us a sort of quarantined environment in which it is safe to bring this stuff out into the open and explore it.

Enabling structures for play

So how do we support play? Enabling structures are critical — we need spaces in which play can take place. think of the way a kindergarten works. Typically these are not austere classrooms but rather stimulating and interesting physical environments, equipped with play resources of many kinds, paints and bricks. These ‘play structures’ provide enabling scaffolding within which children can experiment and explore.

And of course what works in the world of children also has application for adults. Increasingly we are seeing attention being paid to environments to enable innovation — for example the Googleplex, Apple’s new headquarters or the Pixar studios. The idea of ‘innovation labs’ has become a ‘must-have’ accessory for any organization (public or private sector) concerned with innovation, recognising the need for dedicated spaces within which experimentation can happen. They provide safe offline environments in a physical sense.

Games as structured play

But another key part of this enabling structure is the idea of games. Games are essentially structured play where a space is created within which different rules operate and into which we can immerse ourselves

Dave Gray and colleagues suggest that games represent a particular kind of play which have five key characteristics:

· Game space — an environment in which the rules of ordinary life are temporarily suspended and replaced with the rules of the game. In effect it involves a temporary alternative world.

· Boundaries — games have a definite point at which they start and end and other boundaries — for example in physical space. A football game has time and the boundaries of the pitch, for example.

· Rules for interaction — these define the way the game is played together with the game space boundaries

· Artefacts — these are elements which enable the game to be played or carry information about the riles. For example the counters on a board game, the ball, bat and other equipment in a sport game, etc.

· Goal — games have a purpose and an end point, a winning state when the objective is achieved.

Games offer powerful opportunities to work with alternative worlds and explore, experiment and create in focussed fashion. They have been extensively used in a variety of ‘serious’ contexts — for example as ‘safe’ ways to explore and resolve organizational conflicts, to break down silos, to build trust, to enable more effective collaboration within and between teams, etc.

The GAMIFY project

All of which makes learning to play an increasingly important theme in the innovation world. It’s one which is being explored in the GAMIFY project, a collaborative European programme involving universities, companies and intermediaries. The underlying intention is to explore where and how games can be used in innovation and to establish patterns and processes through which we might construct games around innovation. Part of the project involves developing some examples of games dealing with current ‘hot topic’ issues in the area — for example:

· Dealing with the sustainability challenge in innovation

· Managing innovation in the context of remote working

· Developing a ‘customer first’ orientation

· Business modelling and reconfiguring value propositions in innovation

· Overcoming innovation barriers in organizations

Learning to play — and playing to learn

So learning to play — whether it is by constructing environments like the Flying Lab or developing games such as those in the GAMIFY project — is an increasingly important theme in innovative organizations. But there’s another angle to this — it’s not just about learning to play, there are also rich opportunities in playing to learn.

The power of play is that it allows simulation, rehearsal, experiment and crucially failure in safe fashion. So using play as an educational device offers some powerful opportunities — not least because it works with the way we are ‘hard-wired’. Play runs through the work of many educational theorists like Piaget, who saw it as integral to the development of intelligence in children. Other researchers such as Vygotsky place similarly strong emphasis on play as a learning device/enabler. His ‘zone of proximal development’ suggests that play has an important role in stretching children (via social engagement and collaboration) to both reinforce their existing knowledge and reach towards new frontiers.

Games are really valuable part of the learning process — because they make it fun. The motivation to explore and learn something new isn’t always easy to come by — which is why the reward circuits we mentioned above are important.

Games provide a valuable way of bringing a new dimension to the learning experience — we can see this, looking from kindergarten through to the kinds of management training seen in a thousand MBA classrooms. Different types of games — role playing, paper aeroplane throwing, team dynamics involving contraptions for not breaking eggs — they are all part of a suite of games whose purpose is to engage and enable learning. With the crisis has come an emphasis on how to enhance the Zoom experience — one way is via activities — games — which can lighten the mood, change the learning state.

Games offer a powerful way to structure fun experiences though which students can learn; examples include the ExEc programme for teaching entrepreneurship and the CRAFT programme around innovation.

How can games help learning?

David Kolb’s learning cycle is widely used as a simplified representation of how we learn. It suggests that learning is about more than concept, that it is rooted in experience and different stations need to be visited before the loop is closed. Crucially it recognises the need to experiment as part of that process, creating experiences which can then be reflected upon.

The value of games is that they offer a safe experimental space in which to do so. Play fits around the ‘experiment’ and ‘experience’ zones in the Kolb model — we generate (in fun ways) experience through trying stuff out. Setting up such a ‘ludic space’ involves working with elements such as freedom to play, uncertainty and the use of artificial/alternative worlds within which to experience a different reality.

It doesn’t matter if we fail and crash because we do so in a safe space — but we do generate rich experiences from which we can extract important concepts. Whether those are about the features of a new product or service we are developing or the route to a new way of handling a tricky organizational situation, playing games is a valuable resource in our innovation pockets.

Preparing for innovation take-off

Back to the FlyingLab. When it was opened back in 2020 one of the first teams to use the space were internal innovators with bright ideas which might help the company move forward. The session was offered as part of the opening event and brought together a diverse mix of Lufthansa employees from all over the company. It involved playing a game — SHIFT — and using the game to explore (and overcome) potential barriers to innovation in their environment. It was a great success, but what they — and the company — didn’t know was that days later the facility would be closed due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Since then the world has changed and we now face more pressing challenges than ever — precisely the environment in which innovation becomes essential. Whilst much of the innovation emphasis in the short term is likely to be about bringing things back to some kind of normal (which will involve a lot of incremental improvements) there is also scope for the kind of imaginative thinking which results from playing with new ideas.

The FlyingLab is now open again for business, as are many other similar environments in other organizationse. But their success will depend in no small measure on the willingness of those organizations — and the people within them — to loosen up a little, rediscover their child-like abilities to play.

Perhaps George Bernard Shaw was right not only about individuals but organizations when he suggested that ‘we don’t stop playing because we get old, we get old because we stop playing’.

If you’re interested in more innovation-related ideas, tools and perspectives please check out my website here



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john bessant

john bessant

Innovation teacher/coach/researcher and these days trying to write songs, sketches and other ways to tell stories