Creativity, Lego and Play.


Why do so many agencies have pool tables? Or table tennis? Or something that says ‘come and play’. In an industry that survives by swapping time for money it seems counter-intuitive to encourage people to waste it. But that’s the thing. If you’re looking to foster creativity, you can never waste too much time on play. Here’s why.


Play is an essential part of human condition. Always has been. It helps us learn, form relationships and discover new things. Some of our most influential inventions are the bi-product of play. Early engineering principles were tinkered together in a toy shop. Alexendar Flemming tripped over penicillin in an untidy lab. And we all know Archimedes was just playing in the bath. Eureka.

Early cognitive theorist Jean Piaget, outlined four stages of human development – all of them built around play. From the Sensorimotor Stage where babies discover their world by putting stuff in their mouths to his Formal Operation Stage where 12 year olds can cognitively separate theory from experimentation and think through their ideas more clearly. Play is how we learn. And wherever you look, play is also the power behind new ideas. Or, as the Smithsonian put it when describing Stephen Johnson’s book: If necessity is the mother of invention, play is its father. 


Understanding the power of play is not a new idea. If you jump back a couple of thousand years, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus noted that ‘Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.’ I’m sure he noted the same in women, but the ancient Greeks weren’t renowned for gender inclusive language. Einstein was on a similar page ‘To stimulate creativity one must develop childlike inclination for play and the childlike desire for recognition.’ More recently, comic genius John Cleese said the same thing in shorter words ‘If you want creative workers, give them enough time to play.


Lego is a great example of creativity in play. It was invented in Denmark over 80 years ago and its name comes from the Danish term ‘Leg Godt’ - which literally means 'Play Well'. And plenty of people do exactly that. Lego’s alphabet of click-together bricks have equal appeal to kids, adults and super-Lego nerds known as AFOLs (Adult Fans of Lego). Anyone can use the Lego alphabet to create just about anything. But the thing about Lego is the ‘system’. Every piece works with every other piece in an orderly and systematic fashion. Lego has rules. And within those rules the possibilities are endless. But everything that’s built is built within the system.

That makes Lego a useful example of the important interplay between Divergent and Convergent thinking in creativity. Divergence is thinking ‘outside the box’. Anything is possible. What will we make today? Convergent thinking is the application of boundaries. What are the pieces we have? How do they click together? Convergence is essential in applied creativity. It’s only by catching the creative clouds that you can build something that actually works. But the best way to think creatively is to go divergently nuts at the outset and leave the sense-checking convergent thinking for later. The biggest barrier to adult creativity is thinking ‘back into the box’ way too early.


One of the most interesting aspects of creativity is that children are way better at it than grown ups. This was something explored by visionary thinker Dr George Land. He did a stack of work around identifying and enhancing creative performance. One of his more famous experiments looked at scoring ‘genius level’ creativity in different age groups. Turns out kids are mostly genius. So Dr George concluded that non-creativity is a learned behaviour.

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This research has been repeated over and over with everything from paper clips to paper planes and more. Tim Brown (founder of IDEO) ran an experiment at TED. He gave everyone in the audience thirty seconds to draw a picture of the person sitting next to them. Chaos and hilarity ensued. But the interestingness happened when people showed their picture to their subject. Pretty much everyone said “Sorry”. As grown ups, we’re so concerned about what people might think of us that we’re embarrassed to show off our creativity. “Run the same experiment with children and they’re proud to show off their creations,” said Tim. Something happens as we grow up and suddenly what people might think of us becomes more important than the freeing up the impressive power of how our minds can think.


If you’re keen to know more, just Google “creativity and play”. There’s a world of interestingness, ideas and some awesome academic research that all draws a straight line between creativity and play. And the more you read, the more obvious it all seems.

Even popular process methodologies like Agile are based on the principles of removing boundaries, flattening hierarchies, tinkering, testing and, ultimately, play. And the more we let go of ourselves and remember the freedom of thinking like kids, the more the creativity will flow.

So if you’re looking to be creative, release your inner-child. Get out from behind your desk, unglue yourself from screens and shoot some hoops, bash some balls, head out fishing or walking or running or drinking… it doesn’t much matter what you do – just get up, get out and go play. 

That’s what I reckon, what do you think?


Michael Goldthorpe