Part IV SEI Dock Model, Pillar III: Play

Part IV

SEI Dock Model, Pillar III: Play

(Active Discovery)

Columbus was at play when it dawned on him that the world was round. Newton was at play in his mind when he saw the apple tree and suddenly conceived of the force of gravity. Watson and Crick were playing with possible shapes of the DNA molecule when they stumbled upon the double helix. Shakespeare played with iambic pentameter his whole life. Mozart barely lived a waking moment when he was not at play. Einstein’s thought experiments are brilliant examples of the mind invited to play.
-Dr. Edward M. Hallowell, Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People
Art by Kittie Wilt

Art by Kittie Wilt

Play is not only for children. This is something you would only hear a child say as they are pulling at your pants leg asking if you can go outside with them. Or is it? Shaun Huberts, author of the book, How To Pack Like A Rock Star, has been touring with bands for over a decade and giving the world advice literally from—and about—the tour bus. Huberts is now shifting gears from traveling tips to creativity tips. In a recent talk, he said: There's a common thread in all of us in our need and desire to play. … Play is not just for kids. Play is important for all of us. Musicians touring around the world have to adopt a playful demeanor if they want to stay creative and composed on tour. Huberts suggests this is one thing the music world has discovered that the rest of us should take note of; as it turns out, research in psychology and neuroscience agrees with him.

As we get older, play becomes something taboo: a time-wasting activity no serious grown up would participate in. What we are finding out now is just how important play really is. Those who play are more productive, have a better eye for detail, and are less stressed.

So, what is play? Play is, in it’s most basic form, anything we enjoy doing for the sake of doing it instead of a means to an end. Play is a refresh button in itself and is an important part of following your passion. It is carefree. Play is something we do naturally; no one has to teach a child how to play because it is something we are hardwired to do. And as a result, play reduces stress and offers a fresh perspective on old ideas.

If you need an adult-sounding justification for play, here it is: Play stimulates creativity and releases dopamine (a neurotransmitter responsible for motivation through pleasure from the reward system in the brain); creativity opens new perspective on your work, and new perspectives and intrinsic motivation lead to higher-quality work.

Or, as any kid would say,

Playing is fun!

In this post, I am going to explore three different aspects of play. First, how to reconnect with the play we knew when we were children; second, how play can be incorporated at work; and finally, what types of adult play we can participate in—it may be closer to you than you think. I will finish this post by showing how play fits in the SEI Dock Model, and how to manage it in relation to the other pillars.


The Child’s Mind

Play provides the emotional spark which activates our attention, problem solving and behavior response systems so we gain the skills necessary for cooperation, co-creativity, altruism and understanding.
-Carla Hannaford, Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All In Your Head

It may seem like a waste of time, but it is one of the most important things we can do each day.

Think about these ideas for a moment: How did you play as a child? How did you play with friends and how did you play alone? Was there an activity you gravitated towards or do remember a favorite toy?

What kind of feelings do you get when you think about playing as a child? Here is what I tuned into while thinking about children at play:

CC  Image  by  Sjoerd Lammers  via Flickr

CC Image by Sjoerd Lammers via Flickr

  • There is no judgment
  • Anything is possible
  • Everyone knows how to do it, although no one is taught how to play
  • There is visible “flow”
  • It helps them adapt to their surroundings
  • It is exciting
  • Rules are allowed to be broken
  • It’s fun


"Play is something done for its own sake. It's voluntary, it's pleasurable, it offers a sense of engagement, it takes you out of time. And the act itself is more important than the outcome. – Dr. Stuart Brown

Notice how there isn’t a lot of sitting around? This is because moving is important. Movement is an important part of learning because it stimulates parts of the brain associated with creativity and problem solving. While you are playing, you are also only thinking about what is in front of you, it is the quickest way to get “in the moment.”

If you are having a hard time rediscovering your old childhood joy, there may be a mental barrier you have put up to guard yourself against play in hope of being productive. To break this down, sometimes all you need to do is give yourself permission to play again. Start small. Give yourself “play breaks” during the day to doodle in a notebook. Pick up an assorted box of Legos and keep them in a disorganized pile on your desk. Join a community ultimate Frisbee team or ask friends to play a pickup game. Eat your lunch outside and toss rocks in a pond. These small steps will help you remember what it was like to be in that mental space again. Little by little it will come back and I promise you, you will see a positive difference in your work and relationships.


Play At Work

“This is the real secret of life -- to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.”
― Alan W. Watts
CC  Image  by  Aaron Davis  via Flickr

CC Image by Aaron Davis via Flickr

Play is often correlated with being trivial and work as being serious. I think the two are not mutually exclusive; in fact, I think we have work all wrong. I try to never be serious and to instead always be sincere. Of course there are deadlines and bills and appointments to be on time for, and I complete all those basic-human-life tasks never being serious. The key to engaging in play at work is your mindset. If something is serious, it implies the possibility of disaster. And when you start honestly answering the question what’s the worst that could happen, you realize nothing is ever as scary as you make out to be. When you start walking around really thinking about how most of the things we worry ourselves with every day are nothing more than social constructs we didn’t want to buy into in the first place, a huge weight is lifted and you can come to the realization there is so little cause for worry and so much more to wonder about.

Sometimes all you need to do is reframe a hard problem to get a different perspective. Like many millennials, Steve Kamb grew up glued to a TV and computer screen. A few years ago, he realized that playing video games was fun but there was something missing. Kamb knew he should be getting out more and exercising, but didn’t know how he would ever find the motivation to start living a healthy lifestyle and exploring the world beyond the screen; so he started thinking about his life as a video game he calls [the] Epic Quest of Awesome. He started blogging about his experience and sharing his level-ups, which gained a positive reputation among the blogosphere and inspired many others to start playing the real real-life-game as well. Kamb now has a website called Nerd Fitness where he encourages other gamers to get outside and start gaining real-life experience points. (Side note: Games like Ingress are responsible for getting gamers out and about, incorporating play, physical movement, and the outdoors)

Being from the Midwest, my friendly roots have stuck with me as I have set up camp in new cities across the country. I grew up talking to the service workers at the gas station, making small talk with the grocery clerks, asking the baristas at the local coffee shop what book they were reading, and so on (I didn’t think this was uncommon until I traveled and spent time in larger cities). I usually start by asking: How’s your day going?

The most common response I have gotten from Seattle to D.C., down to Orlando and up to Minneapolis, is: Well, I’m at work…

The opposite of play is not work: it is depression. “Work” is something we do between the time when we get up in the morning and before we fall asleep, and how we do that work defines who we are. If your work is the worst eight hours of your day, you are going to feel more drained of energy after your shift than someone who has worked the same amount of time at a job where they are able to play. If you can’t enjoy your work, find new work. If you can’t find new work, take stock of what is really going on. The only way I was able to survive some jobs in the past was to think of it all as a game. I thought only about what was right in front of me, one customer at a time, one project at a time. This idea comes from Alan Watts. He describes a job washing dishes where instead of thinking of the towering stack waiting to be washed, he only thought of the one dish he was washing. It then turned into a dance, taking a dish, wiping it down, rinsing, and moving on to the next. Instead of it being a chore, it turned into a “dish dance”.


Play as Escape: Hobbies

"Play is the highest form of research.”  - Albert Einstein

For the most part, play is fiddling around with something or other just for the sake of liking what happens when you tinker. All of my mentors have had at least one hobby they are “armchair” experts at to tamper with as a way to de-stress from work. My mentors spend their time brewing beer, playing chess, doing carpentry, restoring cars, cooking, gardening, and marathon running. I de-stress by messing around with my creative writing and meeting up with my book club.

You don’t have to have one go-to hobby: feel free to explore. Here are some ideas of things you can do to inspire the freedom play offers by rediscovering your inner child:

  • Game Night. One of my friend groups meets up one night a week to play board games. Some of them who are writers have told me that if they are having an off week, they sometimes leave game night so inspired that when they get home, they work through the night until early the next morning.
  • Trade Night. Another group of friends get together once a month to learn something new. They spend Saturday afternoons learning how to knit, throwing clay, or learning a new dance step. One Saturday, they even went to a shooting range (this is not as common in the city, rural friends). One of my (guy) friends told me: I found out I am great at knitting and it’s something I actually enjoy doing. It’s relaxing. And then I realized that there were all these things out there that I have never tried that I may really like or be good at. So one of us [in the group] will say, ‘I’ve always wanted to ice skate,' so the next month we will all meet at an ice rink. Sometimes you love it, sometimes you hate it, but it’s better to try and hate it than not know what you’re missing.

Here are some other ideas:

  • Karaoke
  • Trivia night (check your local pub)
  • Pick-up sports games with friends at the park
  • Woodworking
  • Sewing
  • Beekeeping
  • Dancing  
  • Visual arts 


Art by Kittie Wilt

Art by Kittie Wilt

How Play Fits in the Dock Model

A lack of play should be treated like malnutrition: it’s a health risk to your body and mind. – Dr. Stuart Brown, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul 

Play is the first pillar in this series to not be connected to the shore. The “Playpillar is in the water with “Health” and “Practice” in the background. This pillar is facing open water symbolizing a full range of opportunities. Once we have a solid foundation in a skillset (Practice, Pillar II) and are healthy enough to use all of our faculties to their fullest (Health, Pillar I), we will be able to Play with our skills, break rules (and know why we are breaking rules), and experiment with a full ocean of possibilities on the horizon. 

For more information on “Play,” an in-depth reading, and more reasons why it is okay for you to play as an adult, visit The National Institute for Play.

Part VI of the SEI Dock Model will be released on October 23, 2015. In the meantime, enjoy playing on your own and with others!


If you missed any of the previous weeks, follow the links below:

Week 1: SEI Dock Model: Introduction

Week 2: SEI Dock Model: Pillar I, Health

Week 3: SEI Dock Model: Pillar II, Practice

Week 4: SEI Dock Model, Pillar III: Play 

Week 5: SEI Dock Model Pillar IV: Reflection

Week 6: Part VI: The SEI Dock Model, Building Your Dock



Andrew J. Wilt
SEI Junior Consultant
Apprenticeship Program