The other day I attended the annual Austin kite festival and had a blast. I had forgotten how much fun it was to play and honestly, what it was like to fly a kite. I forgot about the time. I laughed a lot. And, probably most shocking to me, I cleared my mind. Flying a kite also reminded me of one of the emerging themes at SXSW 2019: play.
When attending an emerging tech conference like SXSW, the last topic you’d expect to hear about is play. However, various presenters at SXSW talked about the importance of play in their daily lives, including its benefits in their professional endeavors. During his interview with Debbie Millman, Austin Kleon talked about some of his lessons learned from his latest book, Keep Going. He reminded us that our “real work is play” because it is the “work of the artist.” Play, Austin explained, is one of the many ways that he is able to write books, even when it’s hard. Play is also one of the many ways that we can stay creative whether as an engineer or an artist. John Cohn took us on his professional journey through the lens of play in his talk, “Prioritizing Play in an Automated Age.” He talked about the many benefits of play from innovating to healing to making us more empathetic individuals. He encouraged us to play with various technologies, new and old, to not only have fun, but to stimulate creativity. He said the more he plays, the better he can think. Cohn reminded us that play can also help us teach empathy to our tech machines. During her convergence keynote, Jessica Brillhart talked about how she taught herself virtual reality (VR). She made silly projects in VR to test novel ideas and concepts. By playing and experimenting, she made one project after the other, ultimately leading to collaborations with innovative teams and starting her own company.
Initially, I was surprised to hear various speakers talking about the merits of play at an emerging tech conference. However, as more and more of the sessions included discussions about play and its value, I began to see why it needs to be an integral part of daily life. We all need play in our lives for a variety of reasons including recharging, having fun, and boosting our creativity.
The presenters aren’t alone in their support of play. Research studies also document the benefits play for children and adults. In children, play changes the prefrontal cortex, “which has a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans, and solving problems.” In children, play also contributes to increased social skills like cooperating, helping, and sharing, which have been shown to positively impact academic achievement. Play is critical to developing children’s brains. Research shows that playing helps adults connect with others, build communities, and ward off degenerative brain diseases. Play (i.e., sports and aerobic exercise) also reduces stress hormones and helps you relax.
How can you incorporate play into your daily routine? Make a play date with yourself at least once a week or include time for play in your daily routine. Play may include anything from sketching nature scenes to playing music or flying a kite to dancing. Ask yourself what play means to you. Then, go do more of those things. Have fun with getting creative.
Besides the benefits noted above, play is important because it allows us to embrace our humanity. And, as a result, we can teach robots and artificial intelligence to be more human. There isn’t a magic formula for how we can be more creative. The answer is actually quite easy for us. Play more, have fun, and you’ll begin to see new ways to solve the problems you may be facing. Today we are living in a world with challenging problems ranging from providing clean water to empowering humans through education to growing food for over 8 billion people. We need creative thinkers that can develop transformative solutions for these major issues. When we play, it is a way for us to enhance creativity, overcome obstacles, embrace our humanity, and create breakthrough solutions to challenging problems we face as a society. It’s time to go play. Forget about the time, have fun, clear your mind, and be creative.