Adults, play and learning

The other night one of my twins, A, was running after his younger sister, T, around the room. Round and round in a circle they went and were quite happy to keep going. Sometimes when I need them to be occupied, I make up a game like ‘who can jump over the most cushions?’ and watch them go crazy and have arguments about who won. We know that children having fun is an easy thing for them to do. It’s not forced, it’s not a chore, and it doesn’t feel troublesome to their self.

We also know that adults like to have fun. Except the fun we have has to be quite focused. When we play board games, it’s with a purpose of winning the game. When we go to the casino, it’s with the purpose of winning money. When we play sports, it’s with the purpose of being better than the other person. When we play with our children it’s either to distract them, or help them develop different skills. It’s a set of activities we engage in and have… fun.

And what happens when we try to introduce play at work? ‘That’s a childish exercise, what are we doing that for?’, ‘That has no bearing on what I do in my day to day reality’, ‘It’s too simple’, ‘Well that was fun, now how about we do some work?’.

And what happens when we try and debrief the play session? ‘What can you learn from that activity about the behaviour you were displaying?’, ‘Reflect on the aim of the game, did you achieve what you set out to do?’, ‘What similarities can you draw between what you did in the game and what you do at work?’

They seem like reasonable, facilitative questions, that draw out insight and learning. Except they’re not. They’re patronising, condescending and treat adults like children. ‘So children, now tell me how did it feel to win that game?’ By way of a distraction, you should check out the @ShitFacilitator Twitter account. It’s quite an amusing parody of ‘shit facilitators say’.

I’m a fan of play in adult learning. I think done well, an exercise can engage a group brilliantly, and they immerse themselves into the activity when they understand the purpose of doing so.

It’s good to remind ourselves of the different use of play, and when it can be used.


Should only be a short exercise lasting no more than 20 mins. It stops being an icebreaker if it goes on any longer than that and becomes a full on exercise. The rules should be minimal, and the purpose quite clear. In general, the purpose should be ‘This is a light-hearted activity to start/continue the session’.

Anything more complicated or detailed than that and again it stops being an icebreaker/energiser.

The de-brief should be as simple as ‘Thanks for doing that, let’s get started with the main aim of today.’

Discussion based exercise

I favour this type of methodology as it allows people to get involved and interact with others in the group. You can make the discussions as short or as long as required. The de-brief from these is typically a shared discussion of what’s been discussed.

‘Fun’ based activities

I’m cautious of these activities because they don’t often add anything to a persons learning. They tend to be the kind of ‘Create a newspaper front page about the task at hand with newspaper and magazine cuttings’. Or ‘Solve this set of brain teasers’. It’s a good way of exercising creativity, but even then it doesn’t really deliver much in terms of learning or development of people.

Please don’t try draw learnings out from these, it’s a frivolous activity, so keep it there.

Case study

Is often a good way to engage the group in testing their knowledge/skills/attitude in some way. The case study should be reflective of a real situation they would likely be faced with, and sets out clear parameters that need to be taken into consideration. It can be about operational problems, people problems or hypothetical situations.

The de-brief of a case study should focus on feedback to the individuals on what was observed, and seeking their input on what they were actually able to practise. It is also useful for testing knowledge and skills.

Business Simulation

Personally this is my favourite type of play. It’s about developing a full exercise where you give detailed briefs, conditions, parameters, and all sorts of nuances. It’s about an exercise which is steeped in the business and gets the group to work through problems they face on a day to day basis. You can stop play and introduce new learning which will help them progress with the task at hand. You can make it more interesting and add things to the simulation which are unexpected and add variation to the simulation.

Where this works brilliantly is where the de-brief takes place. It’s almost like doing an end of project review. You break it down and examine everything that happened. What were the aims of the simulation? Who took lead? Who worked well with others? Who was a terrorist? Who was included? Who was excluded? How did decisions get made? Who had authority? Who was a worker bee? Who gathered intelligence? Who made the tea?

The learning you gather and take from this is top class.

Real life Project

This is probably the hardest of all to make happen. As it says on the tin, it’s about giving a project which is live, a real thing the organisation needs to resolve, and means the output of what you produce has the likelihood of actually being implemented. The time, effort, and resources required to make something like this work is immense – and the rewards equally so.

To support this type of activity, the individual or group needs to have a coach or mentor seeing them through the project and giving support to check their approach and check their actions. Internal networks of knowledge sharing and collaboration needs to be allowed. A certain level of freedom and authority to make things happen needs to be thrown their way. This type of activity is arguable where innovation and creativity takes place.

It’s main challenges are that it doesn’t sit in a classroom environment, because it’s real life. The project environment is the organisation itself, and with that allows fascinating discussions to take place.

There are more types and variations of play I’ve not mentioned such as music, outdoor, painting, food making, and a whole lot more.

What I remain mindful of in respect of the above is that play has its place in learning and development. As part of the toolkit of how to support the organisation achieve its goals, we need to keep front of mind what these are. From there, we can develop the right kind of L&D solution. If it happens to be a play based solution, that’s fine, we just need to ensure we treat the adults as adults, and not fall down the trap of treating them like children.