Work–Life: Establishing Equilibrium Through Creative Play

We are well aware of the benefits of creative play for child development, and we’ve seen examples throughout history of how play is a part of the creative process in a variety of disciplines. But what if creative play could be more than that? What if creative play acted as a link for our evolving understanding of work–life balance? What if it allowed us to look at work–life balance as a fluid concept, rather than requiring a strict division? Further, what if creative play, especially when shared among pairs or groups, could actually offer a feedback loop from one area of life to the other, thereby strengthening both?

Perhaps the answer is deceptively simple: that play can be the pathway for a fluid, interconnected work–life format for couples, partners, and collaborative workplaces. When play is part of a creative process, it can become the link between joyful work and a purposeful life.

Play Connecting Science / Art

Sir Alexander Fleming is most famous for discovering penicillin, for which he was awarded the shared Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1945. One lesser known detail about him, however, is that his appreciation for creative play led to his breakthrough discovery.

Fleming played all kinds of games, from golf to billiards, and was active in multiple art societies – but he also played at work; he played with microbes by using them to paint ballerinas, houses, mothers feeding children, stick figures fighting, and other scenes. “There are, of course, many rules to this play…” he said, “but when you have acquired knowledge and experience it is very pleasant to break the rules and to be able to find something nobody had thought of.” It was through this creative play that he discovered penicillin – all thanks to mold that had developed on a staphylococcus culture plate that had been accidentally contaminated.

Illustration: Jennifer Backman

Immunology is not the only branch of science to benefit from this type of creative play. Richard Feynman was a theoretical physicist who is best known for making science more accessible to the average person. He won a Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in quantum electrodynamics, which was initially inspired by watching someone spin plates in a cafeteria. In a BBC documentary called The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, Feynman describes the purpose and joy of play in his work. When he first delved into physics, it was through play and curiosity. However, as he progressed in his career, he felt that he lost the playfulness of his explorations. He is known to have said, ”Physics disgusts me a little bit now, but I used to enjoy doing physics. Why did I enjoy it? I used to play with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing – it didn’t have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with.”

With his remembered appreciation of creative play, the experience of watching the spinning plates in the cafeteria led Feynman to play with physics once again, and it allowed him to have open-ended observations. Speaking of this time in his career, he explained: “It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.”

In the same way scientists have toyed with art, artists have tinkered with science. In his book, also called The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, Feynman takes issue with the misconception that only an artist would truly appreciate the beauty of a flower, while a scientist would merely dissect and categorize it. In reality, a playful mind will enjoy the vibrant colors of the flower while following with a trail of questions about the purpose the colors might play. The scientific knowledge adds to the mystery and the awe of the beauty.

Charles Eames, one of the most prolific designers of the 20th century, references Feynman’s thinking in one of his famous Norton Lectures:

I can never think that our pleasures, our rewards from the things around us, could ever possibly be diminished by additional knowledge about it. And the contrary is true. I heard Richard Feynman describe waves on the beach. He’s a particle physicist and he was describing the waves in terms of insights that he felt and knew about the reactions of the particles within the wave, the relationship between the molecules of water, what happened as the light came into it, the forces of gravity and the inertia [that] was taking place – and it was a description of a breaking wave because he had a tremendous appreciation of the exquisite beauty of what was going on, not only on the surface of the wave, but what was going on inside the surface of the wave and what had gone beyond to make that wave possible. It was a delightful thing and no better pleasure or experience could I wish you all.

Play Connecting Work / Life

Employees traditionally sought to divide work and life as clearly as possible, but in recent years this mindset has shifted. The past few generations understood that you work for one company, for long hours, and climb the corporate ladder internally. For them, there was a clear expectation that once you were home, you were “off the clock.” Today, the idea of being “off the clock” is outdated.

A connected, fluid concept of work–life balance through play, however, could put a more positive spin on the merging of our personal and work lives. As many creative couples know, creativity doesn’t have office hours. I often find myself in moments when I am technically “off the clock,” and yet an unrelated and playful conversation with my husband leads to a breakthrough for a wicked problem at work. This is where creative, open-ended play shines – it’s not the moments “on the clock” or “off the clock,” it’s the moments that connect the two.

Charles Eames himself was one half of a creative couple that lived and worked harmoniously through play. Charles and Ray Eames exemplified a connected – rather than divided – approach to work and life. They each contributed their different perspectives and different skills. Their playfulness brought them success; it allowed them to foster a constant cycle of feedback and to problem solve in a variety of ways. According to William Cook, author of a BBC article on the couple entitled “Charles and Ray Eames: The Couple Who Shaped the Way We Live,” Ray’s contributions to their success were “a lot subtler, less overtly visible to the untrained eye. She had a sharp eye for detail, he had a head full of big ideas. She sprinkled stardust on his designs, and gave his grand projects the human touch. She had a feel for color, and a sense of fun. Without her playful input, his creations would have seemed austere.”

Tim Brown, CEO at IDEO, believes in the importance of play. At the 2008 Serious Play conference, Brown spoke about our tendency as adults to categorize any new observation or situation as quickly as we can. This is because we want to settle on an answer and figure out what is going on. He references aluminum foil as an example. As adults, we immediately associate it with its assigned category: Aluminum foil is something we use in the kitchen. But a child would look at the foil and think of ways to use it to make a costume or create something new.

Kids are more engaged with different possibilities. They don’t just ask “What is it?” but rather, “What could I do with it? What could it be?” This openness is the beginning of explorative play. More importantly, avoiding the pitfalls of categorization through play helps us see value in having a connected approach to our lives. Creative play can offer different perspectives and encourage more cross-pollination, leading to adults asking more questions like “What could it be?”

A New Equilibrium

There are clear advantages when art feeds science and science informs art. Similarly, in creative pairs, one person’s way of thinking and doing feeds into the other’s. A playful perspective helps us to categorize less, thereby finding unique and truly new solutions to challenges. Creative play-acting is a connective tissue, a mechanism through which we can approach the known in new ways, without our predisposition to a categorized or solely goal-oriented life.

It’s evident that creative play connects us to different ways of investigating and understanding the world. If the giants of art and science can utilize it in such a beneficial way, perhaps we can shift our gaze forward and consider how creative play might be a new lens through which we can refine what work–life balance may look like in the 21st century.

the author

Lena Blackstock

Lena Blackstock is a senior design researcher at Asurion. She is based in Nashville, TN.