As Adults, We Need More Play

Jul 14, 2017 1 Min Read


Building an inquisitive and innovative mindset through gamification

The developmental psychologist Jean Piaget once observed that “play is the answer to how anything new comes about.”

While we might start off in life with curious minds and creative imaginations, the rigidity of conventional education often stifles our natural tendency to explore and experiment as we grow older.

In place of play, inquisitiveness and innovation, we find order, structure and stringent rules to be followed.

At school, we are instructed not to colour outside the lines. When painting a tree, it must look exactly like a tree. In music, these two chords shouldn’t go together. In language, grammar and syntax trump invention and creative use of words – a view that would have horrified P.G. Wodehouse and Oscar Wilde.

In his later years, Piaget lamented, “Our real problem is: what is the goal of education? Are we forming children that are only capable of learning what is already known? Or should we try developing creative and innovative minds, capable of discovery from the preschool age on, throughout life?”

For traditionalists, learning is a serious business – and so it is. However, the provision of learning in a rigid and flavourless manner robs the learner of the most important components of learning. These days, education views teaching as means to help students pass exams, but the true aim of education must surely be to cultivate critical thinking, deepen curiosity, and foster creativity.

To be able to play in an educational setting is vital for a child’s development. It helps to nurture the imagination and dexterity, and develop cognitive, physical and emotional strength.

learn through play

Play is what allows children to make sense of the world around them, to make social connections, and make fascinating discoveries. Play, to paraphrase Piaget, is how progress is made. Play is essentially experiences we gain interacting with each other and the world around us.

Just last week, I (Roshan) spent the day with CEO of Help Education Group, and prominent psychologist, Dr Goh Chee Leong. We were both lamenting the need for more “experiences” to be baked into education.

He immediately offered the use of Help International (HIS) to imbed leadership experiences into his school curriculum. And he reinforced the belief that play is not a waste of time. It’s critical for growth.

Indeed, the notion held by some that play is a waste of time is now recognised by research as misguided. Play helps us to connect – and not just as children, but also as we head into adulthood.

It’s seen on the golf course, the football field, on team-building retreats and in offices where creativity and innovation are central to success. At Leaderonomics, work is play and we built our offices to ensure everyone is involved in “serious play.”

Dr Stuart Brown heads up a non-profit called the National Institute for Play, which aims to unlock human potential. In an interview with he notes, “What you begin to see when there’s major play deprivation in an otherwise competent adult is that they’re not much fun to be around. You begin to see that the perseverance and joy in work is lessened and that life is much more laborious.”

It’s suggested that, on average, the human brain can maintain concentration for approximately 20 minutes before our focus declines.

Learning something new can often be a challenge and, if the material is presented in a conventional, linear fashion, we’re likely to struggle to process much of the information in a way that sticks. This likelihood increases if we have to learn a new skill or process, regardless of our level of interest in the subject.

Last week, Leaderonomics was invited to Dwi Emas International School to meet a group of foundation leaders. The school presented a special item which showcased how students learnt complex chemistry and science formulas using dance. Yes, dance.

Each student shared a specific complex formula and then showed us a dance move that helped them internalise and remember the formula. Here was a great example of how play (well in this case dance!) helped make science come alive for these students.


Let’s explore gamification, where elements of game-playing are applied to areas of learning. By adding the concept of play into the mix, we become primed to learn precisely because the learning becomes fun – it’s something we want to take part in.

This approach is well utilised by language apps which include games, levels, points, and leaderboards to help users chart their progress in learning a new language. There’s a natural drive to beating our best score or getting to the next level – we want to move up that leader board as quickly as possible.

Last year, Leaderonomics decided to provide every single company in the world with an affordable LMS or Learning Management System (and at US$250/RM1,000 per company all-inclusive: we knew everyone could afford it).

In a partnership with CourseNetworking, owned by University of Indiana-Purdue, we knew that gamification had to be built into the LMS. We also knew that every piece of content we prepared had to have gamification elements. In fact, every part of our business, be it employee engagement or even our communications, need to embed elements of play into it.

All of this creates deeper learning within participants as they ingrain what they’ve learned as something of a success, of “levelling-up” or unlocking an achievement. Compare this method of learning, say, French with learning the language through the use of audio instruction and reciting words on a page.

Conversing in a new language will accelerate progress to an extent; however, conventional learning often lacks the elements of fun challenges, competition, and reward that play frequently offers.

The best way to learn is by playing because, when we play, we become much more focused on the task at hand – we literally have something to play for.

In bringing gamification into our learning, more of what we learn sticks as the information we process is done in an interesting and stimulating way that holds our attention in ways traditional learning cannot.

You might like this: Game-Based Learning: Too Good To Be True?

Even boards can play

Every month or so, Leaderonomics gets invited to help facilitate company board meetings. Boards generally are traditional in their approach to discussing key issues and making decisions.

Last year, we were facilitating a board meeting where Gary Neville, the former Manchester United football star happened to be a participant. He asked me (Roshan) at lunch, before the board session started, what we would be doing for the board meeting. I gleefully smiled and replied, “we are going to play Lego today.” And we did. We ended up conducting the entire board session with Lego blocks, using play as means to make critical decisions and resolve niggling issues that cropped up.

And as the board played and became engaged in the play – with every single board member giving input – it ended up being a very productive board session.

If we look at great innovators of today such as Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Lori Greiner, all their success stories stem from doing what they love to do and finding ways to overcome tough challenges. As adults, we don’t need less play. On the contrary, we need more of it if we hope to discover new ideas that can help to change and shape our world for the better.

So, find ways to play with your employees and your team members. Build play into your organisation, even your board meeting and watch as your organisation learns and grows even more.

Play on!

Roshan Thiran is CEO of Leaderonomics and dedicating the next 10 years of his life to build digital learning games and play elements. He plays a lot, even in the office, much to the dismay of his ‘serious’ colleagues.

Sandy Clarke is the former managing editor of and is from the UK with over 10 years’ experience in journalism and PR.

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This article is published by the editors of with the consent of the guest author. 

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