October 12, 2004
Engineering alumni meet for a playdate
By Matthew Early Wright
When did you last forget about your adult responsibilities and indulge your childlike tendencies? Do you regularly take time to turn off your brain and just play? If the answer to either question is “not in years,” chances are you’re not living as healthy a life as you may think. If the presenters at Saturday’s Engineering Day (EDAY) conference “The Power of Play” are right, playing throughout your life is essential to being happy, creative and healthy.
“Play is absolutely essential to creativity,” said conference host David Kelley, the Donald W. Whittier Professor in Mechanical Engineering and founder of the highly successful design firm IDEO. The conference, sponsored by the School of Engineering and attended by approximately 450 engineering alumni, drew experts from Stanford and outside organizations to discuss and celebrate the value of play in the adult world.
The themes of innovation and creativity were ubiquitous, and play was presented as a tool to facilitate variation and experimentation in professions that depend on creativity. “If you are flying an airplane, you want everything to go smoothly with no surprises,” said Robert I. Sutton, professor of management science and engineering and co-chair of the Center for Work, Technology and Organization. “But if you’re in a creative profession, mistakes and setbacks are the absolute lifeblood of innovation.”
Play as therapy
Presenters including Michael Schrage, author of Serious Play, and Richard Tait, “grand poo-bah” of Cranium Inc., focused on the value of play as a therapeutic tool for people of all ages. Their message was clear: People who maintain their playful nature into adulthood are more creative and well-adjusted.
“Diminished or absent play at any stage of the life cycle has toxic consequences,” said Stuart Brown, founder and director of the nonprofit Institute for Play in Carmel Valley, California, who has studied the psychology of play for years.
Brown made the case that play is just as important for our sanity as sleep. “Sleep, like play, is a dynamically stabilizing phenomenon,” he said. Sleep deprivation, he argued, results in many of the same destructive social patterns observed in those who are deprived of normal play behavior.
While studying violent criminals, Brown found that nearly all of his study subjects lacked normal play behavior as children. “The opposite of play is not work -- it is depression. How you cope with that depression becomes your own odyssey.”
Brown also has spent years observing humans and all sorts of animals to characterize just what play is and how it affects social interactions. He tells stories of ravens repeatedly sliding down snowy slopes for the sheer fun of it, platypuses using their unique electrosensing capabilities in playful ways (they are the only mammals that detect their prey by sensing electricity), and mountain goats jumping about at random with no discernible purpose.
Enough talk; let’s play!
What would a conference about the merits of play be if the participants had to sit in an auditorium all day and listen to speakers? Realizing this, the organizers of “The Power of Play” built into the day a three-hour activity that encouraged everyone to revel in the spirit of whimsical invention. Conference attendees were assembled in groups of five, given a handful of materials including a copy of the game Twister, and tasked with developing and prototyping a playable game.
Kyle Jennings, a doctoral candidate at the University of California-Berkeley studying psychology and creativity, thought the activity went well overall. “This was a very good attempt to get everyone to play and experience the way it influences creativity, but it was very easy to fall into the trap of linear thinking.” That said, he was impressed with the enthusiasm most participants brought to the activity.
Beth Curran, director of alumni relations for the School of Engineering and principal organizer of the event, was impressed with how the activity brought groups of strangers together. “When everyone filed back inside, they were buzzing as if they had all just become great friends. What I learned from this is that the best way for engineers to get to know each other is to have them build or design something together.”
Kelley capped off the day with a fitting comment that seemed to capture the spirit of the day: “Take your mind back to that of a child, and enjoy that feeling. In figuring out how to do that, you can find real enlightenment.”
Matthew Early Wright is a science writing intern at Stanford News Service.