I am fascinated by the role that play serves in stimulating creativity and innovative thinking.

Adulting – a term we all use when we don’t feel like facing responsibilities. It’s the thing that stops us from having fun, right? I always joke with my students and say “You know you’re knee-deep in adulting when you go out into the world and buy a night-frill.” An obscure and unnecessary accessory that decorates the base of your bed.

Maybe you’ve been told there’s no time for play in the adulting world?

When children play, they confront their problems and make decisions by either solving them “practically by doing or they […] solve them by discussion”,1 or even by talking aloud to themselves. How different are we grownups to children as we do this too? There’s this super-cool-olden-day-timey psychoanalyst called Donald Winnicott who suggested that play for adults is very much alive as it “manifests itself, for instance, in the choice of words, in the inflections of the voice, and indeed in the sense of humour”. 5

Without realising it, we still play! We use our imaginations “to envisage what may happen, to foresee possibilities and to imagine the kind of experiences that are needed”,1 problem solving our way through everyday life – when we are deciding what to wear, when we are trying to find a new route to work.

We are at our best when we problem solve like children.

George Land, another cool dude, did research in 1968 that resulted in the theory that children are born naturally creative but “they seem to lose it as they grow older”.3 Check it out here. A simple test was given to children to answer this and the results were mind-blowing: young children proved to be 98% creative in comparison to adults who are 2% creative in their everyday lives.4 George Land encourages adults to “turn that five-year-old on” when problem solving.4

We need to keep playing in order for us to stay truly creative.

If we spend most of our time adulting, when did we stop being a kid? When did we lose that childlike wonder that allowed us to think up new ideas and invent endlessly?

Eat less vegetables!

True play isn’t intentionally productive. But perhaps the process itself is productive in that it teaches us to let go and find new solutions to a problem. Here’s a scenario: a child was playing with his grandfather. Having much fun and admiring the child’s ability to play freely,  the grandfather expressed the desire to be a child again. The child proposed a simple solution: “It’s easy grandpa, eat less vegetables!”2 Well of course! Why didn’t I think of that! If eating vegetables, going to work, paying bills and buying night-frills makes you a grown up, then surely the opposite makes you a child? The thing is though, the adult exists in a world where he needs to function as a “commodity-producing and commodity-exchanging being”.1 So when the adult plays, he needs to unplug from this reality entirely and have fun just for fun’s sake.

So how do we play as adults?

Are our hobbies our outlets of play? Or are our hobbies merely tasks we set up for ourselves that serve us in other areas of our lives? I play when I illustrate yes, but how much of illustrating is purely for the purpose of play?

In my illustration classes, I want to encourage my students to play and problem solve like children, to forget about the “night-frills” of life and invent solutions to creative problems. But how do they get there?

Divergent thinking helps us with creative problem-solving.

There are two kinds of thinking: divergent thinking that requires the imagination (like when you’re trying to draw something new like a unicorn riding a skateboard, eating a rainbow, wearing a sequin leotard) and convergent thinking that entails being analytical (like when you’re trying to figure out how many night-frills you’ll need for a night-frill party). Adulting demands that we use that analytical side more and so we make less new discoveries and explore less.

But when we exercise divergent thinking, we allow ourselves to dream. The one kind of thinking acts like an accelerator (Go go go!) and the other acts like a break (I’m scared, please pull over). So when we’re super stressed and “operating under fear, we’re using even a smaller part of the brain” and with creative thinking, we activate more areas in the brain.4

“Through play there is a lessening of stress and feelings of guilt” as children act out their problems, they free themselves up to enter a space where they allow themselves to learn.1 “To the adult, play is recreation”,1 accepting faults, being free, spontaneous and at ease.

I try to encourage my students to make mistakes, figure it out, without the fear of failure. Winnicott says that “playing can occur more easily when the [player] is able and free to play”.5 So in my classes, I try to play with my students when I give them a task (otherwise I’m like that PT teacher in school who stood on the edge of the pool on a winter morning, telling you to swim better).

Play until something happens

This year, I’ve given my students the motivational phrase “Play until something happens”. I’m trying to encourage them to physically work out a problem fearlessly and to try it multiple times so that, maybe by the 39th try, they will realise the solution into being. They will stare it in the eye, call it by its name and summon it forward *insert airy-fairy hippy voice here*.

Play, because “nothing can be more destructive than boredom”.1


Stephanie Simpson,

Illustration lecturer, cat lover, illustrator, storyteller, passionate about teaching

and most known online on Instagram as Me and Norman.



Reference list

  1. Cass, J.E. 1971. The significance of children’s play. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd.
  2. Gopnik, A & Griffiths, T. 2017. What happens to creativity when we age? [online] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/19/opinion/sunday/what-happens-to-creativity-as-we-age.html Accessed on 8 March 2018.
  3. Tan, F K. 2013. Cool Stuff Your Parents Never Told You About Parenting. Bloomington: Xlibris Corporation.
  4. TEDx Talks. 2011. George Land The Failure of Success at TEDxTucson. Youtube Video. [online] Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZfKMq-rYtnc&feature=youtu.be Accessed on 8 March 2018.
  5. Winnicott, D. 1971. Playing and Reality. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd.