An interview with Gary Ware, founder of Breakthrough Play.
How has play made your life better, and why is it so important to incorporate more of it into all of our lives?
Let me break it down into a few areas:
Connection Some of the best moments like connecting with my son, my family, and friends all came from moments of play.
Creativity When I am stuck on a project, if I take a play break I usually come up with a breakthrough, or come back refreshed and ready to jump back into it.
Improvisation is one of my favorite forms of play, and the games that we play to get better at it has helped me become quicker on my feet, more articulate, and able to have empathy for the people that I talk to.
A mentor of mine Gwen Gordon once said, "Play is the superfood of behavior". When you make space for what I call "purposeful play" there are so many benefits, from reduced stress to stronger relationships.
From teaching play at Google to leading TEDx Talks, can you share one of your favorite playful memories to date? Any major aha moments?
I was leading a session for the Kaiser Permanente organization. This was their annual retreat where all the publicity representatives from all the locations come together. One of our last games was called Amazing Machine. In that game, participants co-create a large machine where they will step into the play space one by one, and make a movement and sound that compliments the person before them. Then the last person names the machine that they all created, and the game starts all over again. That is a really fun game to allow the team to practice thinking on their feet, supporting each other, and realizing that the end result is greater than the sum of the parts. Anyhoo, when we were debriefing the experience, one of the participants was almost in tears, and what she said was so profound. She said, "This game helped me realize that I am important and need to be here." That little playful moment helped her connect the dots, and realize that her contribution to the company is necessary, and what she is doing is part of something larger than herself.
This has been a tough year for many. What advice do you have for those who are feeling burnt out and don’t know how to unplug, recharge, and start playing?
I feel you and see you! It has been one topsy turvy year. If you are having a challenge making the space for play you are not alone. I know all the benefits, and it is even challenging for me. See, the way that the brain works is that when you are stressed you are activating the Sympathetic Nervous System, which directs the body's rapid involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations. When you are in that state you are in a survival mode, and play is the last thing that you want to do. The challenge is that our bodies aren't used to being in that state for long periods at a time. It was designed to get us into action to get out of life threatening situations like being chased by a saber toothed tiger. Fortunately for us there is not a threat like that - unfortunately the fears and stresses that we experience trigger our brain to respond as if we are in that same amount of danger. When that goes on for long periods of time you are more likely to experience a lot of negative side effects like sleep problems, lowered immunity, weight gain, memory and concentration impairment, and anxiety to name a few.
Play is the antidote. When you play, you trigger the Parasympathetic Nervous System. When you activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System, you allow the body to adapt and recover. This may sound counterintuitive when you are in this state, and the best thing to do is start small. When you are feeling good, create a note on your phone of all the activities that bring you joy, then when you notice the stress building up, consult your playlist and set aside 5-10 min to play. Notice how you feel after, and celebrate your effort by throwing your fist in the air. If you need to give yourself permission, here is a slip you can download.
Love that! Yet, we still have work to do. In one of your recent videos, you shared the 4 improv principles you’ve learned to help navigate tough conversations from a place of empathy. In today’s climate, how might you encourage more people to embrace these tough, but necessary, conversations amidst the play?
One of the benefits of play is that you create a safe place for people to be the authentic self. Play is a vulnerable activity, and when applied correctly you create oxytocin and serotonin in the participants. Those are the neurochemicals in the brain connected to trust and belonging. If you are going to have tough conversations, especially at work, I suggest you start with some playful elements like mirroring movement activities, or word association. This will create that safe space needed to have these uncomfortable conversations. It will also prime the attendees to start thinking differently. When people share, have the group do something symbolic like jazz hands to show they have each other's back. It may sound silly, and it is, and it is also an effective way to help teams communicate in an inclusive way.
As a black man and father, what do you hope the future looks like if we can get these conversations right?
My hope for the future is that the seeds that we are planting with these conversations turn into real action. We were able to make progress in untangling the systemic racism that is holding back BIPOC these days. With the technology we have in place it is my hope that we are able to truly work smarter, not harder, to reduce the burnout and unnecessary stress that plagues our workplaces. Finally, Play is seen as necessary in all areas of life rather than a frivolous activity.
What else can we do to support you, and make positive progress toward a more playful world?
If you have a need for training in the areas of communication, creativity, confidence, connection, and you don't want another boring presenter, look me up. I'm even providing virtual experiences. If you feel inspired by what you read and want to bring more play to your day-to-day life, start by doing a play-history to see what activities brought you joy when you were younger, and how you can bring them back in your life. I have a guide to walk you through the process.
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