The Pet Shop – Taking the power of play seriously

One of the great things about working in a home office is that my creativity mentor, my 5-year-old daughter, sometimes pops in to see me and give me advice.  Sometimes this is also a huge distraction if, say I’m doing some coaching on Skype and she bundles in talking about the latest Moshi Monster she wants to catch. Over time though we’ve manage to strike a good balance where I welcome her spontaneous appearances and she respects that sometimes I have to do work that is all a bit adultish and dull.

Last week I was on a call when a note, written on tissue paper was slipped underneath the door.  I was immediately intrigued and excited as to what it might say and tried to stay focussed on my conversation, occasionally glancing down at the floor like a child obsessing as to what their unopened Christmas presents might be.

Eventually the call ended and I read the following note:


Here is the translation for those of you who aren’t fluent in 5-year-old phonics: “To Daddy, I am doing a pet shop. Would you like to come to buy an animal.  Please, it is downstairs. Love Maya.  PS. Can you get some pets for my pet shop.”

The note made me smile immensely, it must have taken lots of concentration and time to write it and I loved the fact that she had heard I was on a call so found another way of engaging with me.  I still had a lot of work  to do but decided to take 15 minutes off to be with her and respond to her note. I went into her bedroom and rooted through her mass of soft toys to find some that would be good for a pet shop and carried as many as I could downstairs to her.  I helped her set up her till, moved a table so the pets could be displayed and helped her arrange them in such a way that customers couldn’t help but buy them.  It was then her dinner time so I went off to finish my work, pleased that I’d found some time to be involved.  I am sure whatever work I did next was better as a result of my brief immersion into the imagination of a 5-year-old.

Just before I went to bed that night I re-read her note and suddenly realised that, in my adult-like state, I had missed something very important, something that was at the heart of the note – the invitation to play.  I felt filled with sadness.  I’d responded to the task, the request to bring toys, to go downstairs and see the pet shop but I’d not engaged in the fantasy, immersed myself in the imaginative space that is pure play.   This was the reason she had put all of the effort into writing the note.  How had I missed this?  I was determined to make up for it so I put the following appointment in my big adultish diary for the following day.  I thought to myself that I always take appointments in my diary seriously so I was determined to treat this invitation to play at the Pet Shop in the same way.

Phone appointment

The next morning at 9am (totally ignoring the times in the diary appointment) I spent around ‘£200’ buying a variety of pets in a wonderful pet shop run by a lovely young lady who gave me a discount on everything.  There was a great special offer where if you purchased two dogs you got a free snake.  You could buy all sorts of pet food including beans for rabbits and the shop keeper even let me have a turn at being the shop keeper so I could see what it was like!  I had a wonderful time and will certainly recommend this shop to all of my friends.

In her great book Workplace to Playspace, Pamela Meyer describes our early experiences of play as a place “where we develop a sense of ourselves, experiment with different roles, become socialised, build confidence and explore our creativity.  However we get the message [early in life] that play is free and to be set aside when there [is] something important to do.”  She makes a call to shift our perception of our ‘workplace’ to being a ‘playspace’ – a place that is still highly productive but far more engaging, relational and developmental for us.  “From workplace to playspace is an invitation to shift from a mind-set that conceives of work as separate from dynamic engagement to one where the workplace is a playspace for new ideas, perspectives and possibilities – to embrace our organisations as living, breathing, ever-changing systems and reclaim play as an essential dynamic of success.”

For me, the Pet Shop experience yielded a number of personal insights for me.  Firstly I was surprised as to how easily I missed the invitation to play, the heart of the ‘offer’ on the note, instead being distracted by the instructional task.  Surely somebody who writes and consults on this stuff should have broken these patterns by now – apparently not.  It seems that play, imagination and creativity are not like riding a bike – you can’t just do it once and that’s it for life – it takes continual practice to maintain the embodied playspace mindset.

I’m also now intrigued as to how I can take play more seriously but without making it serious.  I’m not suggesting that I should schedule all play in the same way that I’d schedule meetings – that would be horrible and strip out all the spontaneity and joy from it.  However, there was something about the act of putting it in formally in my diary that felt very mischievous and I just wished that others could browse my diary, come across the pet shop appointment and think “Eh?”.  There is something about deliberately blurring the lines between work/play, formal/informal, planned/spontaneous that feels like an exciting and worthwhile experiment both for me, for those I work with and hopefully for those who read this blog.

As Meyer says  “Being playful is an engaged, embodied and lighthearted state.  In reconceiving innovation, learning and change as improvised play we breath new life into these processes and create the very space needed to ensure they thrive.”

From Workplace to Playspace by Pamela Meyer is a great read for those who are curious about how play can re-generate the workplace and nudge it into an experience that is all together more relational, developmental and creative for us all.  It is available from all good bookshops and internets.
  1. Emma Dove says:

    Really great article! I love the idea of diary dates for play time! I make a lot of lists for work and have tried to merge the lines between work and play by also making lists of the fun things I want to achieve outside work. It may not sound all that spontaneous but the list might have items like ‘Do something fun’ or ‘Take some time to be creative’. I find it helps to remind me to take some time for myself and so something a little silly without being too prescriptive. I even cross them off my list when I’m done!

    1. Thanks for your comment Emma. Love the idea of merging work/fun lists. Make me think of also having a trusted ‘creative muse’ who throws some ‘wildcard’ things into the list that you don’t know what they are until you open an envelope or something. I’m also learning that things don’t always have to be spontaneous to be fun or creative so diarised play is a good discipline to get into I guess.

  2. Chris Sanders says:

    Steve, loved the article. Totally agree making playspace in your working day in my experience builds team cohesion, creativity and increases productivity. However so often it’s contrived and formalised such as a team meal or group event that it never achieves what it’s meant to! Two spontaneous activities that I remember well was a group of the facilitators before a kaizen dancing and singing to “I’m sexy and I know it” on the Change framework mat!! Age ranges from 20s to 50s!! Second was a recent team meeting where we all had party face masks, toy trophies (for reward and recognition), balloons!! The people walking past to their boring meetings looked in enviously and curiously to what was going on. Our play-work achieved more in those few hours than any team meeting I’d attended previously and also built a greater bond and trust between those in the room.

    1. Thanks for the comment Chris. I agree that contrived, formalised stuff often misses the point – nothing worse that ‘forced fun’ – that’s what gives team building events such a bad name (and makes them easy fodder for sit-coms). Like the image of besuited folk walking past your meetings, maybe tutting and shaking their heads, but secretly wishing they were part of the experience. Love the idea of a meeting invite entitled “The I’m Sexy and I Know it Kaizen” – would be an experiment in itself to see who would turn up!

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