A Few Thoughts On The Merits Of Using Play To Accomplish Great Things.

Posted on May 24th, 2011 at 8:16 pm by in News, Writing


A Few Thoughts On The Merits Of Using Play To Accomplish Great Things.

Recently, Bea Beste, an education entrepreneur who has started a number of schools K-12 schools in Berlin, asked me about the basic ideas behind Public Workshop. Bea was particularly interested in the role that play serves in our approach and work. Play is so embedded in Public Workshop‘s work that I rarely talk about it as such- it’s just how we do things and personally, who I am. Thus, I really appreciated the reflection allowed by Bea’s questions and thought I would share it with you. You can see the rest of Bea’s article on her website, www.playducation.org

-Alex Gilliam

What role does play take on in your work?
Play is absolutely central to my work, allowing me to help others accomplish great things. Although play has been a essential piece of how I work for almost 19 years, as I’ve relentlessly evolved my the methods and tools that I use to do more and do it better, play has naturally come to fill a more prominent role in how I work. In fact, it is so embedded in what Public Workshop does and who I am, that I barely even think of it or describe it as play- it’s just how I do things.

How does this manifest itself?
On one hand, play can take the very literal form of a game, such as when I use massive games of hide-n-go-seek to rapidly accelerate young designers learning about the site upon which they may design, and build a structure. The simple insertion of a child’s game into a design/learning process literally shaves days off the traditional process of mapping and investigating a potential building site.

Sometimes play manifests itself in our work as the absurdly large, six foot tall thermometers we built for finding heat islands in an underserved neighborhood. Through this and other means, we made the simple act of measurement visible and ridiculous enough that passersby would be curious, disarmed and potentially willing to engage us, giving us access to stories and information about the neighborhood that might be otherwise inaccessible.

At other points in our work, play is so embedded in what we do, that you just might miss it on first glance. For example, we rely heavily on the idea of doing and rapid-prototyping as tools for accelerating learning, collaboration and great design. These processes are inherently playful and even joyfully competitive when appropriate. They encourage the failure, resilience and the uninhibited testing of possibility that are very much part of childhood – skills that we often forget by the time we reach adulthood.

Even many of my designs for rethinking the structure of a learning environment, a community design process or a design office–such as the Citizen Designer Workshop, Shadelab or the Waller Creek Is For Lovers Action Adventure Society– incorporate play through an intentional mixing of generations, skill sets and backgrounds. On one hand, the design of each of these ‘systems’ arise out of very particular, immediate needs and the inherent ‘play’ that occurs in this mixing produces better results. However, there’s also the unfortunate reality that for places that are inherently supposed to be creative, design offices, community design processes and many classrooms are some of the most dreadfully boring, stultifying places I know. I’m deadly serious about creating the right mix of people and designing the best creative/ learning opportunities to do great things. Thankfully, it just so happens that this usually results in a very un-boring environment. Plus, we (students, collaborators, etc.) typically push ourselves incredibly hard to do more and do it better. In many of these circumstances it doesn’t matter how meaningful or noble the goals might be, if having fun wasn’t part of the equation, I would have some mighty ugly mutinies on my hands.

So, when people play they also achieve meaningful things?
Indeed, embedded in play is a seamless integration of doing and thinking, or even doing as thinking, which is absolutely the attitude we need to solve some of our most pressing challenges. And on a very personal level the language I use, the energy I put into any project/class and the physical expressiveness (leaping, running, getting dirty on the floor while building, etc.) of how I work or lead is unabashedly playful.

Sometimes all of these things are very intentional and do allow great things to happen but it is also very much who I am. In short, I work this way because it’s more effective but it also makes me incredibly happy and I wouldn’t have it any other way.