Child imagining a pirate ship looking through telescope

The Museum of Play: The Connection Between Play and Innovation

November 22, 2022

Have you ever noticed how creative kids are? Young people see a cardboard box and it becomes a pirate ship. A stump in the woods is now a queen’s throne. Tie a swath of cloth around their neck and suddenly they’re a superhero.

When’s the last time you did that? Have you ever thought about why you stopped doing those things? Does a switch flip for us and we put all the ridiculousness aside? Believe it or not, it turns out our natural creativity is taught and rewarded out of us as we go through school, university, and then start climbing the corporate ladder.

Whatever the reason for why we stop playing, there’s no denying that play is inherently linked to creativity. That’s exactly what Margaret Strong set out to prove when she founded the Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.

Margaret Woodbury Strong was born in 1897 and grew up an only child of a wealthy family of collectors. Her father collected coins while her mother acquired Japanese art. After her husband passed away in 1932, Margaret had both the time and the means to devote her life to collecting, which she loved fiercely. By the 1960s, she’d collected over 27,000 dolls and other types of toys. She loved to show her collections to friends and began to expand her house to fit her growing collections. In 1968, Margaret received a charter from the state of New York to open the “Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum of Fascination”. She planned to expand the museum with other play-filled exhibits but passed away in 1969 at age 72. In her will, she left all the collections and financial resources to start a museum and 13 years later it opened in Rochester.

Since opening, the museum has grown to span over 285,000 square feet and has dozens of exhibits. Whether you want to follow the Yellow Brick Road in Reading Adventureland, or climb into the cockpit of a helicopter in Imagination Destination, the Museum of Play has something for everyone.

I recently researched the Museum of Play and the connection between play and creativity. It’s a fascinating connection between the two.

What are the elements of play and why are they important?

We probably don’t think of play as having criteria, but there are six distinct elements that make play… well, playful.

Anticipation

Think of anticipation as the imaginative tension in play. We usually have play time after looking forward to it. When the referee’s whistle blows, or the school bell rings for recess, or the neighbor kids knock at the door to see if you want to come outside. All of these are examples of the anticipation that comes at the start of play. It’s during the anticipation that we imagine what happens next.

Surprise

Next is surprise, which Charles Darwin described as a “novel idea that breaks through a habitual train of thought.” Think of surprise as the laughter and delight part of play. You know it when you hear a gasp then laughter bubbling up. It’s when a game of hide and seek turns as the hiders are found and burst out laughing. Surprise has curiosity baked into it, and leads to all sorts of delicious discoveries.

Pleasure

Pleasure is the reward for curiosity and surprise, or the treasure so to speak. It’s the defining element of play and the urge to play more. Pleasure is a mixture of satisfaction, delight, glee, and fun. Play wouldn’t be play if it weren’t fun. And because play offers its own reward, play is a perpetual cycle of more play.

Understanding

Think of understanding as the piece of play where we learn skills and tools. In understanding, we learn empathy, sensitivity, how to communicate, and how to work in teams. We learn about consequences and rewards, fairness, and pattern-solving. Play is a huge part of how we learned to learn as kids. When we discovered something through a fun round of play, it made us want to dig into it more.

Strength

Strength is how play improves our physical strength and motor skills, mental abilities, and even social skills. This is the easiest element to picture: comic book heroes leaping across tall buildings, a circus trapeze artist flying through the air, or a soccer player scoring the winning goal. We glorify strength in play, but in reality, play teaches us resilience and patience to master and control that strength. 

Poise

When you combine understanding and strength, you get poise. Poise is where balance comes into play (…see what I did there?). It’s knowing where your arms, legs, and body are in space, a phenomenon known as proprioception. But we lose that skill as we age, creating a fall risk in our golden years. Fun fact, recently physical therapists have begun to prescribe play to older adults to regain their proprioception and decrease their fall risk.

How is play similar to innovation as adults?

Play, creativity, and innovation are all variations of each other. We learn to be creative as kids when we’re curious and set out to discover new things (or the “surprise” element mentioned earlier). We use our skills of observation to put together unrelated things. Like when a kid wants a “doughnut sandwich” for dinner, or when Taco Bell created the Crunchwrap Supreme (Is it a quesadilla? A burrito? Both? Who knows!), they’re versions of innovation and play at work.

How does play as children influence our creativity as adults?

Because play and creativity are variations of the same thing, it all comes down to practice. When was the last time you played or did something for the pure joy of it? No goal in mind, just simple enjoyment. The more you practice doing activities for the sheer pleasure of it, the more your creativity muscles are flexed. And if you enjoy new experiences, your creativity muscles are doubly flexed.

What are some of the exhibits at the Museum of Play and what types of play do they teach?

I love the idea of the Imagination Destination where you can role-play scenarios with physical challenges. You can jump into the captain’s chair and take command of the bridge on a battleship, climb into the cockpit of an emergency helicopter, or climb up and around a rocket ship set among the stars. My assistant Lindsay is an avid reader, clocking in at 50-100 fantasy books a year (wow!). She loves the Reading Adventureland exhibit, where you can become a sleuth and solve riddles in the Mystery Mansion, play with silly words and rhymes in the Upside-Down Nonsense House, and delve into magic in the Wizard’s Workshop. 

What’s one tip adults could use from play that would enhance our creativity?

Play often doesn’t have a goal in mind, and because it’s fun it provides its own reward. Yet it gives oodles of dividends. Pick at least one activity that you love to do and plan it into your schedule weekly. Creativity and play are muscles. They need to be flexed regularly to keep working.

When was the last time you were curious and used your powers of observation to connect unrelated things? I talk a lot more about how to do this in my latest book.

For more on how to connect the dots between unrelated ideas so you can create something truly innovative, check out my book, RE:Think Innovation.

Photo credit: Joshua Choate via Pixabay

     About Carla

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Carla is a world-renowned storyteller, an entertaining speaker, and a prolific author. Having lived, worked, and studied on five continents, she's partnered with top brands and conferences to train thousands of people how to rethink the work that they do and the impact they can have. Her visionary expertise has inspired and equipped leaders at all levels to embrace change, welcome new ideas, and transform their business.

Her work with Fortune 500 brands served as the foundation for many of her books. Her tenth, RE:Think Innovation, is a #1 new release that busts the myth that innovation is something that requires a specific degree or special training. In fact, Carla explains why, to be a successful company in today's hyper-competitive, customer-driven world, innovation must be everyone's business. Her goal is to teach one million people how to become innovators by 2025.

Consistently named one of the top influencers in B2B, digital and content marketing, Carla regularly challenges conventional thinking. Today, she travels the world teaching anyone (and everyone) how to cultivate idea-driven teams that breed unstoppable creativity and game-changing innovation.