Alzheimers and Play

“…play is a very primal activity. It is preconscious and preverbal – it arises out of ancient biological structures that existed before our consciousness or our ability to speak.” p15, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, by Stuart Brown, M.D.

If play is preverbal and even preconscious, it should be an effective way to connect with people whose short term memory and even ability to speak has deteriorated. Play can speak to that deeply embedded place in each of us which can light up with delight and fun and connection.

I am putting together a proposal to play with Alzheimers patients at a retirement home nearby. I haven’t yet tried the group, so this is all an intellectual (and yet playful) exercise so far. I’m excited by the possibilities though. To treat patients as people. To reach a place inside them where they can still connect and understand and feel human. I’m playing with ideas of how to do this, from bringing in balloons to practicing funny walks (ala the Ministry of Funny Walks from Monty Python) to rhyming to clowning. I want to take a clowning class now! I can picture myself going in with a balloon attached to my back, and pretending I don’t know it’s there and can’t see it. If and when I actually run this group, I will report to you the results. Has anyone out there tried this?


Are Play and Work Opposites?

What do you think the opposite of play is? Work? Or maybe boredom, depression, ennui? What do you think the opposite of work is? Play? Or maybe tuning out, watching tv, losing touch with your vital spark?

I believe play is an important component of work, and work can be a rewarding part of play. In fact, I feel certain that adding more play to work is vital to the success of the workplace. Not adding a foosball table to the break room, or happy hour on Fridays. I mean a space to play with both ideas and physical objects, where there is no possibility of failure, where people encourage each other to be creative and silly and open.

Most people are afraid of bringing up silly, creative ideas. In fact, people are deathly afraid of being judged by their peers, and even more scared of being judged by their bosses. People feel like their essence is being judged, not just their brain sparkles. Don’t believe me? There’s a TED talk by Tim Brown, President and CEO of design company IDEO. ( He asks the audience to draw a 30 second picture of the person next to them. Everyone is embarrassed by their drawings, and say sorry, and laugh uncomfortably. The person sitting next to them is unlikely to be their boss, or even someone who will see them at the office and tease them about their drawing, right? So take that discomfort, and multiply by the importance of the person listening to your idea, and multiply again by the importance of the problem the idea could fix. Then multiply by your fear of losing face, or losing dignity, or losing your job. How likely are you to bring up your crazy idea now?

Add to this the fact that most workplaces are serious. Business-like. Dignified. The guy at the top (and unfortunately, it’s most likely to be a guy) is Important. And thus, Intimidating. This type of business environment is not conducive to creative thought and the free flowing sharing of ideas. It’s not even likely to support communication, friendship, familiarity with other departments, or collaboration across disciplines. But it’s this very collaboration across disciplines and between departments that creates the most innovative ideas, and friendship with people in other parts of the company that lets work get done quickly and efficiently. People are much more likely to go to a friend for help than an unknown quantity in the accounting office. (No offense to accountants meant. For you, say an unknown quantity in the art department. Probably equally foreign, yes?)

How can you foster a more playful, collaborative, creative environment at work? Excellent question! I’m so glad you asked. First, you need a place where people can’t fail. Set aside some time where people can play games that spur creativity without  competition. (I will have another post about this sort of thing – it deserves plenty of space!) Second, foster an environment of encouragement for taking risks. Taking risks is hard. Risking showing your colleagues who you are and what is important to you is hard. Risking looking foolish or undignified is hard. Having compassion for people who take risks, rewarding them for their risks, and leading by example by taking your own risks, is vital.

There is a great book called From Workplace To Playspace: Innovating, Learning, and Changing Through Dynamic Engagement by Pamela Meyer. She writes about companies that have successfully brought play into their organizations, and how it has helped them. She also lists several qualities that playspace in organizations has to have: Playspace is Relational, Generative, Safe, Timeful, and Provocative. I personally believe safety is the most important (thus, my ideas above). I also agree with her other ideas – to be effective, rather than just existing, playspace has to foster relationships between people, generate ideas and excitement, have time and place boundaries, and push people just enough to move them forward. It seems to me that these are both prerequisites and results of playing. Safety is absolutely, positively, and completely necessary for any of the other parts to show up.

It is my dream to bring more play to the work place. To find ways to help create this safe, generative, exciting, relational space. To help companies innovate, groups collaborate, and workers communicate. This is my quest.