The Enemies of Play

No clowns. Or no juggling? No juggling clowns?
Photo: M. Wilson

Could designing for play result in designing for access, equity and inclusion?

I keep a list I call The Enemies of Play.

These are the same enemies that threaten our humanity.

Here are a few:

  • adulting
  • productivity
  • work culture
  • mindfulness
  • racism
  • ableism
  • ageism
  • classism
  • sexism
  • fascism
  • totalitarianism
  • all the -isms
  • intolerance
  • bigotry
  • ignorance
  • fitness culture
  • optimization culture
  • start-up culture
  • non-intentional education
  • hospitals
  • injury
  • illness
  • jail
  • authority

What else?

If the enemies of play are the enemies of our humanity, then what would happen if we designed experiences that cultivated play in all sectors of life: work, schools, hospitals. 

Could designing for play result in designing for access, equity and inclusion?


“Wanna Build a Fort?”

The Ephemeral Architecture of Childhood

Wanna build a fort? I built one in my living room for my friends at Cyberchase and WNET!

Anytime we moved, we ended up with TONS of boxes. They were fairly large, uniform in size and for some reason we kept them after we moved in.  We had a ready-made supply of designer building materials emblazoned with the Bekin logo.  Steph (my older sister) usually orchestrated our escapades and I was only too glad to follow. She invited me to play: she wanted to include me (which is no small feat considering there’s a five year difference between us.) She was an 8 year old who was willing to play for HOURS with a 3 year old! Of course, in my 3 year old brain, I was mature and as capable as her. Just…shorter.

We built our forts outside in Sacramento where the weather was often mild. Boxes formed tunnels behind a lemon tree and a garden that might have had pumpkins, or tomatoes. You crawled through the cardboard tunnels and arrived at a larger antechamber made with bigger boxes where you could actually sit up and have a picnic. Our outside forts were made with boxes, and our inside forts were made by draping sheets and blankets over furniture.

What does a fort do? A fort demarcates a play space.

What does a fort do? A fort demarcates a play space. Building the fort creates an opportunity to create a sculpture and then play IN the sculpture. It’s an activity that’s imbued with some of my favorite qualities: co-creation, process, no fixed route yet a clear(ish) sense of direction. You know when it’s complete yet the infinite opportunity for refinement keeps the game going. When it’s time to stop, it morphs into a new zone for play. You create the play space in which to play: Play within play. The process of creation is productive, however the product is a temporary, imaginative re-structuring of space, a liminal zone. The fort embodies transition. It’s a transitional space AND object.

Steph, my older sister (age 8): “Let’s build a fort.” 

Me (age 3):“Okay!”

Josh, my younger brother (toddler): “Gravel.”

A fort is a feat of extemporaneous engineering, an ephemeral architecture of childhood: creativity incarnate. You build as you go, with no clear idea of how, just a sense of what and a goal: a place to hide, a place that doesn’t let in light, a space with walls, a roof and (hopefully) a door. Maybe a window, but that was tricky. You want to be able to come and go without risking damage to the integrity of the structure. Some forts were built more soundly than others, depending on your level of experience and the materials at your disposal.  Ceilings sag, walls lean.  Hopefully you set it up long enough to retrieve objects for survival: a flashlight, pillows, a blanket, a book and a snack.  Then you sit inside and listen. Listen to the world outside.

Then you sit inside and listen. Listen to the world outside.

An inside world outside your domain. You’re hiding in plain sight. You can see shapes and shadows of the adults carrying on and they can’t see you. They have NO idea what you’re doing. Privacy and protection. Temporary resilience. Calm.

Forts are a temporary play space where you exercise domain over your surroundings. You exert control over your circumstances. You can invite others to help you build, an exercise in cooperation and co-creation.  What if you have a vision and they don’t agree? You gotta sort it out. Or two separate forts get built and then you engage in conflicts over materials. There’s rarely enough prime material for more than one fort in a home. Depending on the age of the architects, one fort usually ends up way more sophisticated than the others, introducing fort-envy into an otherwise fairly innocuous activity. I was always jealous of my sister’s forts, because she had a sense of structure and engineering that my 3 year old brain hadn’t quite developed. I was interested in balancing objects to make my walls. Steph was better at creating firm foundations of support. She even utilized suspension by tying ropes to chairs and draping sheets.

My Favorite Fort Building Techniques

The Drape: drape a large sheet over a chair

Simple. effective. Limited by the design of the chair. This is often quite lovely for the toddler set, but get’s a little cramped if you can’t get under the chair.

Add a second chair, and you’ve got a nice variation, with a little more ceiling height. However, the weight of the sheet can lead to ceiling saggage and might even knock over the chairs.

Tripod: three chairs

This helps disperse the weight of the sheets and blankets, provides more support AND creates a larger interior space for sitting crossed legged without ducking. There might even be enough space in the floorplan for reclining with a book, or snack.

Suspension: draping sheets from taller objects, maybe even using some rope

This is an advanced technique. Tying a knot that can bear weight requires skill and expertise.  Also, what are you tying the rope to? if the base isn’t anchored, you’re asking for a collapse of some kind.

Stacking and Leaning: piling cushions, leaning them against other chairs

If you have large enough cushions, this is a great strategy. Of course, large cushions take up space. Also, there’s usually a time limit to how long the adults in the house will let you abscond with the cushions from the chairs and/or couch.

PS The longevity of your fort is vastly improved if it doesn’t disrupt the lives of the adults you live with.


Monday Matt Picks

Gifts from Me, for Me

Me @ TED

Do you find yourself incessantly doomscrolling in hopes that your finger will find a morsel of light amidst an infinite deluge of disaster?

I do.

So allow me to ‘disrupt your finger of doom’ with a ‘sticky finger of fun.’

Introducing Monday Matt Picks: Gifts from Me, for Me.

Introducing Monday Matt Picks: Gifts from Me, for Me. Each week I’ll highlight a morsel of delight I’ve uncovered that would improve my life immensely and I think should be in your feed…or on your work desk…or breakfast tray…or nightstand.

Monday Matt Picks are the nudges I need to remind me that it’s okay to play. They press my joy buzzer.

So, for beverage drinkers everywhere, I present:

The DIY Brick Mug*

(for the latent LEGO® Maniac in all of us)

Thanks to Buzzfeed for inserting this into my life. It’s ordered, I’ll get it this week, reviews to follow.

* I have no affiliate links as of yet, but I’m definitely open to partnerships 😉

Play (for Adults) is Life or Death

A cabinet full of tabletop board games.
Our Game Cabinet

I attended 3 first grades, on two continents. I grew up in three countries. It was a disruptive experience that I actually look back on fondly. I credit this to a few things: growing up in a village during my formative years; the myriad of adults I came into contact with through school, sports, scouts and theatre; and play. 

My compass was always play. I was most at ease to make mistakes and to take social risks when I felt like I could play.

I like to play on playgrounds. I like those dorky team-building games and ice-breakers. I’ve also come to dread them when they’re poorly facilitated. It’s painful to play a game under the watch of a manager, when it’s poorly designed, or poorly instructed.


When a game is facilitated with expertise you build capacity for connection. We need this capacity for connection now more than ever. When we play, we invite ourselves to encounter our own limitations.  We’re gently forced to acknowledge gaps in awareness, skills, ability, knowledge.

What if play is the secret hack to lifelong learning?


At its core, play is about relating. How to relate better to yourself and others. What humanizes others? Encounters with people. Doing things WITH each other. What might aid the fractured discourse and the polarity of the current socio-political climate? Encounters with others that generate an expression of genuine curiosity about someone else, outside of yourself. 

Curiosity will lead to empathy.

Play is a way to mobilize empathy and create joy in your life with others. When we are in control of our own joy, we are more resilient.

Play is a tool, an intervention that (over time) aids and builds resilience. Resilience is the secret sauce. If we can cultivate our own resilience, we increase our chances of thriving under adverse circumstances.

If we can cultivate our own resilience, we increase our chances of thriving under adverse circumstances.

On Play and Authoritarianism

Close up of a book page, text skewed on an angle. Text is a quote from Improvisation for the Theatre, Second Edition, by Viola Spolion. It reads "The problem-solving games and exercises in this handbook will help clear the air of authoritarianism, and as the training continues, it should disappear."
Improvisation for the Theater, Second Edition by Viola Spolin, pg 9

Is ‘Play’ as radical as I believe it to be?

Viola Spolin thought so.

Her mentor, the groundbreaking sociologist and social activist Neva Boyd did as well.

These two radical women changed the world with their ‘Play’ Manifestos.

They said it.

They did it.

How do we continue their legacy?

“My years of working with the games have shown that this living, organic, non-authoritarian climate can inform the learning process and, in fact, is the only way in which artistic and intuitive freedom can grow.”

-Viola Spolin, preface to Improvisation for the Theatre, Second Edition

‘Play’ with Being Uncomfortable

Author wearing vintage glasses is crossing his arms behind a bench without a shirt on. Sign taped to bench says 'Caution, Stripping in Progress, Controlled Access Zone, Restricted Access'

Discomfort is Overrated

Do we really need to get comfortable with our discomfort in order to succeed? Or can we ‘play’ with discomfort in order to build the resilience and adaptability we need to navigate the future of work?

A recent Fast Company article circulating on LinkedIn proposes that the one thing holding you back from becoming a leader is your ability to navigate discomfort. Being comfortable stymies your success.

You know what makes me uncomfortable? Thought leaders who valorize discomfort.

Is anyone really comfortable?

Is anyone really comfortable?

We’re navigating a pandemic. We all have peers and colleagues navigating a lifetime of systemic racism, including underrepresented leaders throughout our organizations. Can you really be ‘comfortable’ in your role at work if discomfort is a way of life?

I attended a public speaking workshop at work. The facilitator invited us to tap into our past trauma to uncover what’s been silencing our voices, write it down and then share with each other. I barely knew the guy! And these were new colleagues! As an accomplished actor, singer and TED Speaker, I have never encountered a technical approach to my craft that required me to ‘share my truth’ with a new teacher.

I’ve also witnessed a facilitator in a company meeting invite everyone to share a personal failure. One employee was picked for a deeper dive, investigating their story in front of the team in a quasi-therapeutic group encounter…by a business coach…with no license or background in therapy.

When did did trauma become the currency of professional development?

When did trauma become the currency of professional development? Do we need to traffic in vulnerability in order to uncover meaning at work? Why do we elevate catharsis, conflating emotional release with breakthroughs?

And who gets to be ‘vulnerable’ at work? What are the professional ramifications for workers when management encourages disclosure?

I’m challenged when thought leaders champion discomfort

One quote from the article gave me hope:

“A study from Yale’s neuroscience team found that uncertainty is the trigger switch for your brain to learn quickly. This means that unstable environments, while stressful, are essential for your brain to reach its full potential in the shortest span of time possible.”

Fast Company, 08-07-20

“A study from Yale’s neuroscience team found that uncertainty is the trigger switch for your brain to learn quickly. This means that unstable environments, while stressful, are essential for your brain to reach its full potential in the shortest span of time possible.”

Now THIS is interesting. Uncertainty is not the same as discomfort. Would simulations and game scenarios within the workforce provide enough stimulus to create a similarly unstable environment? I’m inclined to believe they could.

What would professional development look like if we fabricated scenarios of instability for employees to test their emotional intelligence, rather than promote psychological manipulation? After all, games and simulations are a mainstay of government, defense and medical education.

When we play with discomfort, we can construct the unfamiliarity required to stimulate growth. That’s the whole point! The outcome of a game is never certain. Engaging with this uncertainty in controlled circumstances leads to change because we’re ‘practicing’ being uncomfortable.

The future of workforce development should ‘play’ with discomfort, not require it.

Monday Matt Picks: Marble Madness

Gifts from Me, for Me


We all need a nudge…

-to wake up (alarm clock)

-to work out (shoes by the bed, or the door)

-to eat better (hide the Oreos)

-to focus (turn off notifications)

So what’s the nudge to remind you to play? This week, for me it’s Marble Madness.

Spacerails Glow-in-the-Dark Marble Roller Coaster

Roller coasters, mazes, races, tracks…I want to realize my Rube Goldberg fantasies. According to The Guardian, marble racing has swiftly become the spectator sport de rigueur in the era of social distancing.

Maybe I’ll get a kit.

Maybe I’ll Google a DIY.

Or check out DoodleChaos on YouTube.

I want to realize my Rube Goldberg fantasies.

Sundae, Fun-day

Sunday is for brunch. Here’s a post I wrote awhile back on playing with your food mixed with a little career advice (for myself).

Career Advice: Artisanal Cotton Candy or Turkish Ice Cream Vendor?

Cotton Candy.

Candy Floss.

Spun Sugar.

This is important:

So is this:

I wonder if  David Shtorm would accept me as an apprentice, a cotton-candy journeyman? Some folks seek enlightenment.  I seek  salep dondurma.  So off to Turkey I go.

And I’ll be using this to commute.

How to Add More Play to Your Grown-Up Life, Even Now

Feel like you don’t know how to play anymore? This will help.

Practice Playfulness

Play can feel silly, unproductive and time consuming. And that’s precisely the point.

Kristin Wong, Freelance Writer, NYTs, Smarter Living

Don’t let this article on Adults & Play slip by.

If you read **ANYTHING** this month on adults & play make sure it includes Kristin Wong’s New York Times article – “How to Add More Play to Your Grown-Up Life, Even Now.” Trouble accessing? Drop Lulu Clay an email. She can help you out.

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Playing with Vulnerability

Strawberry hailing a cab in NYC.
Photo: M.Wilson

When we play, we are vulnerable. 

Playing means confronting our vulnerability amidst the vulnerability of others. 

We see that our consequences have actions. 

What happens when we’re having a good time playing and then our friend decides they don’t want to play anymore? Do we feel abandoned? Are we fulfilled because we won? 

Are we ready to move on as well and their decision to end the game was one we were secretly wishing for as well?

What does play reveal about ourselves and our perception of the world?

When we play, we are vulnerable. 

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