Play can be a powerful tool for building rapport, increasing engagement, and fostering creativity. But what does that mean in the context of facilitation?
Susanne Heiss has seen first-hand how purposeful play can help drive effective outcomes when done correctly. As a facilitator for change, she’s helped organizations to embrace everyone’s individuality and design meaningful workplace environments where everyone can thrive and excel.
In this article, she delves deep into the types of play, its benefits, and how to design purposeful play that fosters business success.
Now you might be thinking: “Play is just for fun, right? It has no real place in the business world!” I’ve had countless conversations with clients that go like this - but that’s not actually true!
In this article, I’ll share some practical tips and inspiration about playing with purpose and intent. We’ll dig into the what, why, who, when, how, and now-what in facilitating it in a business context - so you can design and facilitate playful activities that help your teams be more effective.
What is Play and what does being intentional about it mean
Play does not just plainly equal to fun and games. As facilitators, we need to be mindful of what we choose and how we design the games. It needs to help you achieve effective outcomes for your group, and create an engaging environment where everyone feels heard and respected.
What you choose should ultimately help the clients’ business needs and the topics they want to dig into!
With that in mind, it's important to understand what kind of play you're referring to in a business setting. There are three main types of play:
- Serious play, which includes activities like Lego Serious Play, Playmobil Pro, Actee, or other serious business games that teach or build something in a playful manner.
- Play with the aim of enhancing team collaboration and understanding, exploring values, or building deep connections. Examples of such games include Cozy Juicy Real, the Emotional Culture Deck, or Quinks.
- Play for fun and laughter, with the aim of deepening the sense of belonging among team members. Examples could be trivia or scavenger hunts, your own taboo, or “Who am I?”
But as facilitators, we need to design play so it adds to valuable outcomes. Carefully selecting and being purposeful about the experience can provide tangible benefits beyond just fun!
📒 Read more: Want to check out other facilitation card games that can help you spark play in your next session? Check out this awesome list we've curated!
The benefits of play: Why play after all?
Play has lots to account for - it's a way to communicate, connect, and create.
- More effective communication: According to a study by the LEGO Foundation, play-based learning can increase communication skills by up to 78%. We share ideas, learn about each other, explore views and perspectives. We listen to understand - and more importantly, we listen to learn.
- Better connection and trust: We connect better through play. We create trust, enjoy shared experiences, and build allyship. A study by the American Psychological Association found that play can increase social bonding - and some many studies show that it improves empathy and perspective-taking.
- Levelling-up creativity: We create with ease through play. A study by the University of Michigan found that play can help individuals develop a growth mindset, which is associated with greater resilience and a willingness to take risks. We build new ideas and disregard others. We fail - and learn how to be okay with failing. We invite each other to try again and do better, all while laughing together!
With all these benefits, there’s no reason not to play!
Being mindful of your audience: Who will play?
It's important to remember that not every game is suitable for every audience.
Besides understanding what you want to achieve with your activity, consider the participants' background, language skills, and culture before choosing a game. Knowing your participants and their organizational or team culture will help you choose the right activity and avoid any potential resistance.
Ask yourself these questions to design play more intentionally with organizations you work with:
- How many participants will you have in the session?
- Do they (comfortably) speak the same language?
- Do they differ in age - and might this be an issue?
- How are their physical skills or technical literacy? Will they all be able to access the devices/tools and to play?
- Do you need to respect any cultural references, traditions or beliefs?
- Is the team you play with made up of people with long tenure in the team or are they mostly new joiners?
- What do you know about their level of openness and trust towards each other?
- Is the team lead going to be part of the group, and will this be an issue?
- On which level in the organizations are they? Are they leaders and managers, staff members, blue-collar employees?
- And most importantly, what motivates them? What are their goals and objectives?
Understanding who will have a playful session with will help you choose more carefully and frame the activity better - so you can design playful activities that are tailor-made for them.
Designing play: How do you start and run it?
1. Setting the scene
When designing your session, consider the best time to embed playful activities. The playful exercises, activities, or games that you choose for your group should align with the overarching topic of your work with them. If trust is the objective of your sessions with them, then activities on leadership skills may not be the right choice.
Depending on the length of the session and the energy requirements of the game, consider when it makes more sense for the group to play - for instance, is it before lunch or something to play before the end of the day?
When it comes to introducing play, it's important to set the stage. You don't want to make it sound like child's play to the wrong audience, like corporate types. So here are a few things to keep in mind when leading into play:
Create a safe, brave and comfortable space for your audience. Make sure everyone feels psychologically secure. Repeat any agreements you made at the start of the session. Some of my favorites are:
- Share to learn. Listen to understand.
- Build on each other’s ideas.
- Las Vegas rule: What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Keep confidentiality.
- You are responsible for your own learning.
Encourage sharing, but don't force it. Let everyone know it's okay not to participate if they don't want to.
Instead of framing it as "play" or a "game,” try "let's try something" or "let's experiment". Make it clear that failure is okay and part of the process. You could even frame it as an "exploration lab.” It all depends on your audience and what will resonate with them.
Remember, play is all about creating, failing, and trying again - and it's a great way to learn and grow together!
2. Playing with intent
When it comes to facilitating playful activities, it's important to have everything ready to go. Make sure everyone has the tools, instructions, and resources they need to participate fully. Here are some important things to remember:
- Be clear about how long it will take and what the end goal is.
- Establish everyone’s role. As the facilitator, avoid just observing - unless it's necessary for the game. Everyone should be playing, but if someone doesn't want to participate, ask what they need to join in. If they can't participate, let them take a break and come back for the debrief.
- Remember to capture great moments - pictures, phrases, jokes, ideas, and vulnerable moments - as the team plays!
Now what?: Debriefing with intent
Once the game is concluded, take advantage of opportunities to reflect and debrief. This can be one of the most challenging parts, as you need to ensure there are important takeaways that the team can act on - so you need to plan in time for this!
The ORID framework is a useful tool for conducting debrief sessions and helping participants share their insights and learnings. It stands for:
- Objective (getting the facts)
- Reflective (personal impressions, emotional reactions)
- Interpretative (significance and implications), and
- Decisional (actions, next steps)
Going through questions in relation to these four steps will help the team get a proper time to reflect, learn and share - and can lead them in nicely into the next phase of your session or their work!
After your activity, don't be shy about reminding everyone why you did it and how it ties into the bigger picture. Make sure everyone understands the next steps or actions to take. Share visuals and keepsakes from the playtime along with the action plan and feedback.
Remember, playing can be fun AND drive critical outcomes - as long as you design it with intent. Shared experiences stick teams together, and play can create those magical moments.
If you want to try out some playful activities or have questions about how to incorporate playfulness into your work, don't hesitate to reach out!
Play can be very daunting for corporate clients. But when done right, it helps facilitators create an engaging environment where everyone feels heard and respected.
To take your facilitation game up to the next level, run them in Butter! We promise it'll be extra-engaging (though we may be a tad biased 😉).