BUILDING ON YEARS of research into the science of play, a new group of experts and consultants is making the case that a healthy dose of fun pays dividends at work. In fact, adult play — long seen as a slacker indulgence for anyone over the age of 30 — is now considered essential to workplace productivity, with companies across the country hiring "play consultants" and instituting mandatory happy hours. Even Facebook's all-night "hackathons" are a way to keep employees active and engaged. "Play isn't the opposite of work," says Dr. Stuart Brown, who in 2007 founded The National Institute of Play — a Carmel Valley, California-based nonprofit — to promote the idea of lifelong merrymaking. "They're mutually supportive. Neither can thrive without the other." We dug up the studies and polled the experts to provide the four best ways play can help you professionally.
1 PLAY PROVIDES SUPER-FOCUS.
Researchers have long since proven that for schoolkids, recess is essential for classroom excellence; a notable 2005 study published in the journal Educational Researcher suggested that it "maximizes children's cognitive performance." Now, thanks to innovations in neuroscience, experts believe it's important for adults in the boardroom, too. "Your attention span throughout the day is cyclical," says Robyn M. Holmes, professor of psychology at Monmouth University. "After about 90 minutes, the brain tunes out. It needs downtime to recycle chemicals needed to maintain focus and store information." The takeaway? If you have to produce 20 PowerPoint slides before 8 p.m., a quick and fun diversion may be your best ally: Sketch notes on construction paper, doodle on an Etch A Sketch, or engage in a quick arm-wrestling match with your cubemate.
2 PLAY BUILDS RELATIONSHIPS.
The prefrontal cortex, your brain's social-behavior headquarters, strengthens its neuron-to-neuron connections from social play. Canadian researchers found that young rats isolated from same-age peers developed into socially awkward adult rats. "The play world is a training ground for the real world," says Penn State University anthropologist Garry Chick, Ph.D. The human prefrontal cortex matures by the mid-20s, but the more you engage in enjoyable interactions with others, the better your brain will process social cues — a vital skill for deepening associations at work or meeting new contacts. At Tarte Cosmetics in Manhattan, founder Maureen Kelly hosts a mandatory monthly happy hour where employees gossip and relax. "It creates a bond," she says. So drag everyone to drinks after a big deadline. Your boss will be so impressed with your people skills, you might just become her confidante.
3 PLAY BOOSTS CREATIVITY.
In a well-known study done by researchers at the University of Toronto, toddlers playing with "divergent thinking" toys (blocks) came up with more inventive solutions for a follow-up task than those playing with non-divergent toys (puzzles). The lesson? Play that doesn't require a "right" answer — for adults, painting, dancing, piano jamming — may foster outside-the-box problem solving. Randii Wessen, Ph.D., deputy manager of the Pasadena, California, Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Project Formulation Office, says his firm's cheeky brainstorming space — an open room stocked with Styrofoam balls and pipe cleaners, and a balcony and patio affectionately dubbed "Left Field" and "Out There" — reminds everyone that "every idea is valid." Play gives you permission to let your hair down, so next time you head up a meeting, pass out some Silly Putty. Then make way for brilliance.
4 PLAY DIFFUSES CONFLICT.
A Japanese study last year demonstrated that stress hormone levels fall during creative play — a finding that some companies have been eager to incorporate into HR practices. After Littleton, Colorado-based play consultant Barbara Brannen instituted Halloween dress-up day and stashed Play-Doh around the offices of an energy company, unwanted turnover decreased from 25 to 5 percent the next year. Organize an after-hours game of tag football and invite people from every office clique. The collaborative buzz could carry over into tomorrow's sales meeting.