How learning through play improves teamwork and psychological safety

Episode 057

Dec 13, 2023

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Learning through play? But we're grown adults!

That's something we left behind when we finished school.

Did we? Should we?

What are we losing by leaving play out of learning to be better leaders,
better team members and, overall, better human beings?

Children know that play is their superpower, and we're here to convince the adults who may have forgotten that it's one of their superpowers, too, because

A Team that Plays Together stays Safe Together!

  • Are you curious about boosting the learning culture in your organisation?
  • Do you want to foster teams that are empowered to drive their own learning, creating a culture of collaborative learning and encouraging innovation and experimentation?
  • How can you promote imaginative thinking and help teams understand their emotions and how they affect their daily work?
  • Are these questions constantly on your mind?

We've got an approach that might interest you.

We incorporate a fair amount of play into our events, whether they're in person or virtual.
Take, for instance, Lego.

Have you ever wondered why Lego is so popular, even among adults?

It's probably why Lego introduced the adult game, Lego Play, which helps teams grow, evolve, think critically, be creative, and communicate in various ways. It's been incredibly successful, and we use it regularly.

E057_Learning through play - Lego Man Image

Learning through play helps us get into the flow, and it's like being in the joy zone while deliberately daydreaming. It's all about embracing the concept of serious play, and it's a key part of what we do.

So, if you're looking for innovative ways to address these questions and transform your organisational culture, we have some exciting tools and methods to share!

This isn't just child's play; it's about taking your organisation to new heights while enjoying the journey.

Have you ever wondered how to infuse learning through play into your organisation?

Our podcast was inspired by the offshore learning sessions that Nuala has been conducting, which last 45 to 90 minutes and often involve playful activities like building puzzles, working with Lego, and solving challenging questions as a team.

What she found interesting, working with various departments and crews, was that after spending time with a group, they would eagerly ask when they could engage in more playful activities again, like kids in a candy store.

Whether building models from spaghetti or playing Jenga, there are countless ways to learn through play.

Nuala recalls one team successfully tackling a serious learning session on team dynamics and development. They had extra time and asked if they could play Jenga as a team.

It turned into a lively experience with laughter, friendly bets, moments of frustration, and even a member who opted out to avoid losing. This experience was valuable because it revealed their reactions to conflict and adversity.

It helped them understand who took losses seriously and who treated them as lighthearted moments. These insights, gained through play, mirrored real-world situations on-site, demonstrating the practical importance of incorporating playful learning into team development.

So, it's not just about fun and games; it's a valuable tool for understanding how emotions impact performance in real-world situations.

The Underlying Principles at Play

It's a safe way for people to understand that we're all different and react to things uniquely.

If you're paying attention, you'll notice these differences, and as a leader, appreciating this can change how you work with people.

Our brains don't like being stagnant; they crave change because they quickly become accustomed to the environment and become lazy. So, when it comes to play, it provides that shift, that much-needed change.

That's where the concept of neuroplasticity comes into play.

When we engage in play, we're rewiring our brains, forcing ourselves to find solutions that may not be immediately apparent. This ability to think creatively and adapt can be invaluable in more serious situations when you need to take a calculated risk while staying safe.

We can learn a lot from playing, much like a child - by simply enjoying the act of playing.

An example is a series on YouTube where a family builds a house in the woods. The family [children and adults] play outside with leaves and sticks, and even when a random goat comes charging at them, they continue laughing.

There's something profound in this kind of playful interaction that we don't see as much nowadays.

Now, bringing this into facilitation and team learning - experiential learning is the key. It's not just about theory; it's about embodying what we're trying to learn, and play helps us do that effortlessly.

Some have argued that it should not be called playing but an experimental experience; however, it is play and can be incredibly effective.

Experiences that are playful, joyful, and meaningful engage us actively, and they allow for iteration – trying again when something doesn't work. As we grow older, we tend to become less iterative and more focused on rules and procedures.

We need to remember that challenging the system, playfully and safely, can lead to innovation and new approaches without breaking any rules.

This concept is akin to guided discovery – not reckless risks but a structured approach to innovation and creativity within the boundaries of a safe space.

It's an emotional environment where making mistakes is part of the learning process, free from judgment. These mistakes become valuable lessons, ensuring that when you're out in the field, you don't make those mistakes there.

Experiential Learning

Let's talk about the role of experiential learning facilitators and how they create a unique space.

These facilitators, like ourselves, are often brought into organisations as neutral parties.
This role offers a level of freedom and flexibility that you might not typically find when employed within the organisation.

This neutrality allows them to encourage 'challenge' in a safer manner since they are not directly tied to the organisation's daily tasks and responsibilities.

While research highlights the value of play, especially in child development, emphasising the importance of integrating play into education and parenting - this idea also extends to adults, and it's gaining attention in fields like psychology and sociology.

So, how does learning through play fit into the workplace?

Research suggests that incorporating learning through play at work has several benefits, including

  • enhancing job satisfaction,
  • increasing task involvement and creativity, and
  • improving stress management skills.

Learning how to handle stress in playful situations can be highly applicable to dealing with stress in a work environment.

Karin was involved in a project for a new rig established in a different location.

The project involved an extended stay on a game reserve, and the goal was to introduce two to three collaborating organisations; it aimed to build strong connections among the crew members and between them and the management.

The ultimate objective was to create a cohesive and supportive work family in this unique and demanding environment.

These crew development workshops, lasting two and a half days, combined serious conversations with playful activities.

From blindfolding games to guiding people through minefields and even tossing tennis balls in circles, each activity was a deliberate experiment designed to convey valuable lessons.

The success of this program significantly contributed to the safety of the operation for years to come, and interestingly, about two years ago, Nuala met people who were part of the programs Karin facilitated.

They were still talking about it, describing it as some of the best experiences in learning and team development they had ever had.

This enduring impact makes sense because these experiences connect on a physiological level, provide meaning, create joy, and stay with you long after the situation has passed.

Learning isn't confined to cognitive processes; it extends throughout the body.

Most of our learning happens from the neck down, guided by our brain and the benefits of this and why it succeeded is because of the absence of fear of stopping the job and engaging in conversations.

Familiarity played a key role as people could recall past activities, even ones where they faced challenges. This inclusion and sense of belonging paved the way for tackling future challenges in a more positive and learning-oriented manner.

This mindset shift decreases conversational waste and increases emotional stability right from the beginning of operations.

Imagine having us apply this approach at the beginning of every operation; it will significantly improve the journey for many, something that can often be a slow and challenging path otherwise.

This approach lays a strong foundation for team psychological safety, enabling teams to navigate difficult situations and conflicts. The emphasis is on allowing the true selves of team members to emerge, leading to more authentic connections.

While working together, individuals learn about each other in the workspace, but building lasting bonds and connections requires a different level of engagement.

Forming deep connections is challenging in a fast-paced, job-oriented environment.

However, a unique and deeper bond can be forged using learning through play activities - taking teamwork to a whole new level, strengthening relationships and creating a sense of unity that goes beyond the demands of the job.

Team Bonding

One of Karin's favourites, Stephen Bartlett, also emphasised the importance of team bonding outside of work. Even though his team works hard on their podcast with 30 members, he highlighted that the most significant learning and bonding experiences occur during intentional time away from work.

This could be in the form of a day out, half-days, or team lunches, where they let loose, play, and create shared experiences.

This approach not only enhances their culture of learning but also builds a foundation for a culture of care.

As the holiday season approaches, characterised by giving and receiving gifts, the idea of incorporating play into the workplace becomes even more relevant.

It's a way to bring joy and happiness into the work environment.

While many won't be at home during the festive season and might face stressful work situations, introducing play and dedicated playtime could help reduce holiday-related stresses at work.

Consider how you can implement the learning through play approach in your workplace.

And yes, there is a method in our supposed madness to help you and your teams learn together, understand each other, create memories that will help you deal with the challenges or changes that you face at work, enhance your learning and your culture of care and, most importantly:

Building the foundation of a team that plays together
because they will stay safe together.


Related Podcasts

  • E006 - Sharing a bit more - the 4 Stages of Psychological Safety
  • E007 - What is conversational waste and what can you do about it?
  • E022 - How does Micro Learning add value on board an Oil Rig
  • E024 - Warning! beware of how mental health influences safe operations

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About the Show

Our purpose in sharing this podcast is to have a chinwag (conversation) to help people change how they think and behave about safety. 

We do this by engaging in dialogue and testing the levels of trust and psychological safety, which are core to organisational culture. Making safety part of your DNA so that your people speak up, show up, do right, and become safer every day for yourself, your team, and your business.

We will explore topics related to organisational and safety culture, leadership, the language of risk, emotional literacy, psychological safety, conversational agility, intercultural intelligence, and whatever else pops up during our conversations—sharing our experiences and learnings. 

We intend to share nuggets of wisdom that will challenge your perspectives, potentially solve a nagging problem, share actions you can implement, and give you at least one aha moment.

And, if you enjoyed the show and gained value, please share with just one other person to help spread the word.

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