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Why Creative Play Works

(This is the third in a series. The first part is Unlock Your Creativity, and the second Serious Creativity.)

Playing is not just for kids. A playful and creative approach to problems often leads to the most useful solutions. But why is playfulness so valuable? There are a number of possible reasons. Here are three.

Creative Play Relaxes Inhibitions

Where are you more likely to suggest a new idea; in a group of people who are overly serious, or one that is playfully brainstorming? Probably the latter. Not all new ideas are useful, of course, but having more of them increase the odds of finding a good one. That's why a playful environment, which relaxes ones natural inhibitions, is more conducive to truly creative and useful ideas.

Imagine a child playing with toy buildings. He sets a grocery store next to a house. "That's where we live," he says, pointing at the house "and now we don't have to drive to the grocery store." An adult might say, "But what about the other houses?" The child, not inhibited by ideas of what is "reasonable," moves the store over and says, "Now they don't have to drive to get groceries."

Many adults would feel to "silly" saying, "Why doesn't the store come to us instead of us going to the store?" But overcoming such inhibitions and encouraging playful thinking can lead to some creative and useful ideas. In this case it suggests a store in a large truck that moves from street to street to bring its products to the customers. Such a business could have a regular route, so you knew when it would arrive. Who knows? One truck driving around might make more sense than a thousand cars going to a store that is miles away.

Play Stimulates Imagination

Albert Einstein said, "To stimulate creativity, one must develop the childlike inclination for play..." Nowhere was that inclination more evident in him than in his imaginative "thought experiments." For example, he imagined standing in two elevators and dropping a ball. The first elevator was on Earth, the second in space, moving upwards with an acceleration equal to that of one Earth gravity. It was easy to see that in both cases the ball would fall to the floor at the same speed. In fact, from inside the elevator there would be no way to tell the difference gravity and acceleration. This imaginative journey lead Einstein to formulate the equivalence principle that built the foundation of his theory of General Relativity.

Einstein made it clear that he valued imagination more than knowledge, and he was well known for his playfulness. A playful approach stimulates imagination, and may explain why so many successful entrepreneurs, inventors and idea-creators have that "childlike inclination for play." Even when playing is unrelated to any goal other than enjoyment, it opens up the mind to new thoughts and exercises the brain. For example, playing a real-estate-based board game naturally stimulates me to imagine what I would do if the situations presented were real, and this prepares my mind for real life challenges.

Play Makes The Rational Mind Our Servant

Another quote from Einstein: "The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift." This may not be easy for the average "rational" person to understand at first, but it is a powerful idea. Our minds often simply explain things, make them fit into the body of knowledge we have. We put so much emphasis on this process that we forget that to explain is not to create.

An idea pops into our heads (our consciousness), and then we explain it. But what caused it to be there in the first place? That may not ever be entirely answered, but that process of creation is more important than the rationalizations we invent, isn't it? It is more important, for example, to have the idea (and then the reality) of a computer or an artificial heart, than to comment on them afterwards. Don't we often over-value the thing that explains the wonders of the world - our rational mind - while ignoring that which creates or recreates or appreciates these wonders - our intuitive mind?

Playing is a way to get that relationship working the right way again. In the example above of the movable grocery store, the playful intuitive thought is made useful by the rational mind, which shows how it could be accomplished. That is an example of the rational mind being the "faithful servant." Playing around with ideas opens up all the possibilities, and then the rational mind helps make them realities.

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