Creative Play at Work and in the Classroom

Joyful Ululations

On any given Friday you might walk into the CII and find the Course and Program Design Team drawing for 15 or 20 minutes. More likely than not you’ll see 4 or 5 of us crowded around a small table, scented markers and colored pencils furiously scrawling out our masterpieces. You might even see a guest artist from one of the other CII teams. You’ll probably also hear us intermittently laughing, ululating, and singing. So what’s going on here? Are we insane? Lazy? Bored?

Well, none of these. Instead we’re engaged in a weekly creative ritual. We call this time DEAD (Drop Everything and Draw) and we’ve produced some beauties as you can see below. In this post I’d like to tell you a little about our process and then briefly tie DEAD to the research on the effects of play at work and in the classroom.

Random colorful drawings

A selection of beauties

DEAD: How It Works

Although DEAD appears freewheeling our process is actually quite structured. We start by gathering supplies and people – in particular, we’re interested in bringing in folks from outside of our team. Yep: We enjoy drawing so much that we’ve begun to evangelize DEAD.  Next we use ArtPrompts to choose a topic for our creation time. We’re particularly fond of the category “Creature”.

Art Prompts Website Homepage

Art Prompts

Once a random topic pops up (“Reverse werewolf”, for instance) we set our Google Timer and begin. Drawing time has no rules and the interactions that occur during this time vary with the composition of the group, time of day, and a variety of other factors. After time is up we each showcase our art and explain our choices. Other members of the DEAD group then ask questions and give commentary. Finally, we hang up our art for posterity. This last piece – saving and displaying our art – is an important ingredient in our process. It’s a fantastic feeling to experience the collective creativity of our team on a daily basis while noting the individual differences in drawing style, use of space, color choices, and approaches. As a bonus we have an ever-changing art gallery in our office!

Ok, so we like to draw. Why does this matter? And why should you care?

Play At Work: Effects on Creativity, Productivity, and Affect

A good deal of research supports creative play at work. For instance, in their article Play hard, work hard: Fun at work and job performance Fleugge-Wolf (2014) found that play increases:

  • Positive Affect and Good Feelings: Warm feelings about the workplace, work tasks, and coworkers increase retention and help with recruitment of new employees.
  • Work Engagement and Productivity: Short creative breaks increase motivation and give workers an incentive to stay on task.
  • Organizational Citizenship Behavior: Employees who engage in play are more likely to feel and act on feelings of concern for their coworkers.
  • Creative Performance: Play increases novel and useful solutions in the workplace.
  • Individual Worker Performance: Fun leads to increased motivation and, thus, increased performance. 

Play In The Classroom: Research, My Experience, and Guiding Questions

So far I’ve told you about our experiences with play in the CII and tied this to a bit of research. You might be thinking, “Well, I’m a professor so how is this relevant to me?”. Interestingly enough, the same effects listed above for play at work also apply to educational settings

I can also attest to the power of play in my own experiences as a Freshman Studies instructor. Now, my classes weren’t all fun and games – we did serious, difficult, and sometimes frustrating work – but I always allowed space for formal and informal play. For instance, I built this formal collaborative writing assignment into the curriculum. As you can see students had a fabulous time with it while taking their first tentative steps towards group writing. This small assignment was followed up by increasingly difficult writing activities that culminated in a group research paper.

Informal play in my classes was sometimes provoked by one of my ideas but was often initiated by my students. For instance, although I created and brought a lesson plan with me every day to class I rarely stuck to it 100% of the time. This is because on many occasions my students would become fascinated by a particular topic or activity. Rather than “taking back control” of the class I went along with my students’ interests. This sometimes meant creating an activity on the spot but often simply involved facilitating passionate discussions. In other words I decided to go with the flow rather than fight against it.

Here are some questions to consider when thinking about play in higher ed teaching situations:

  • How could you create space for play in your classrooms? How about outside of the classroom?
  • If you teach online how could you create a sense of fun when students aren’t in the same room?
  • Are there particular types of play that would be more appropriate to your discipline?
  • Are you comfortable with building play into your curriculum? Or would you rather allow play to bubble up organically throughout the semester?
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