We all recognize the genuine joy of engaging with children in play; this is what motivated many of us to work in early care and education in the first place. Sadly, I have noticed that playfulness rarely makes an appearance in our adult interactions.

This is understandable, given the high levels of engagement, professionalism and work ethic demonstrated in our field. We understand the importance and impact of what we do and, therefore, take our work seriously.

However, I have personally witnessed the negative impacts of too much seriousness and not enough play. When stress levels rise, people who are usually lovely do and say things they would not otherwise.

Sometimes, they leave early care and education entirely. So, if we acknowledge that we must be well in order to model and support wellness in children — and perhaps even to go the distance in our chosen profession — we must find opportunities to extend a playful approach to our adult interactions. In doing so, we can reap benefits similar to those experienced by children: chiefly, enhanced personal and collective wellness, learning and development.

We understand that children learn how to interact and engage with others through play and thereby come to know more about themselves and the world. Play provides an opportunity to release energy, build confidence and self-esteem, unleash creativity and self-regulate.

If children need these skills to prepare for an unknown future and can obtain them, in part, through play, then I believe that educators and caregivers need the same skills and opportunities.

How are we coping with the stress of unknown futures? Are we not all being called, in one way or another, to learn and develop our social intelligence, creativity, cross-cultural competence and resiliency?

Do we really believe that character and skills stop developing after the early years? Or, do we somehow decide that learning and development once we grow up is just one more serious and solitary task to add to the long list of tasks we already have? Where did all the fun go?

In my small corner of the globe, we employ a play-based pedagogical approach that focuses on belonging, engagement, well-being and expression that, along with observing children’s play, has helped me to think about how to recognize the signs of positive play behavior in both children and adults. I have concluded that positive play is inclusive, focused, creative and innovative, with lots of singing, dancing, drawing, planning, building and storytelling.

If this sounds a bit scary and you are wondering why you should take the leap, here are some of the benefits of developing a more playful approach at work. Play:

  • Promotes individual and collective wellness, learning and development.
  • Keeps us in check and accountable by further practicing what we preach.
  • Releases endorphins, which decreases stress and allows us to be more fully present and focused.
  • Supports relationship building as we learn and appreciate more about each other and build team cohesion.
  • Enhances communication, collaboration and creativity.
  • Makes the workplace fun and enjoyable, releasing stress and reducing burnout.

None of my current staff work directly with children, which makes it even more important that we are playful, so that we can continue to happily, collaboratively and creatively serve the students and partners who serve children and families. Below are some activities we have used to enhance our work through a playful approach.

1. We encourage staff creativity and expression by having staff decorate their own name buttons on the central scheduling board and we provide adult coloring books and pencil crayons, brain teasers and puzzles in the staff break room.

2. We look for informal, quick and fun ways to connect and chat, such as telling funny stories, and occasionally taking a moment to select a daily fortune or inspirational quote and sharing what it means to us.

3. We encourage learning new skills through cooking demonstrations and greeting card making classes.

4. We provide opportunities to share our time, interests and skills by eating snacks and meals together, developing an easy and healthy dinner ideas binder with take home recipe cards, leading fitness and yoga classes over lunch, and calling for random dance breaks.

5. We plan interactive and playful team-building activities including escape room events, silly costume photo opportunities, creative information sharing challenges, and drumming circles.

My experience has taught me that when we spend even a little bit of time encouraging play at work, we reap the benefits personally, as well as in our programs and services. We are happier and more relaxed, focused, creative and fully engaged at work.

We more readily share our passion and expertise, communicate effectively, and learn and innovate together. Together, we can make the world a better place — one small child at a time — and enjoy the process.

This article was written as a result of the learning gained through playful work and collaboration with Mothercraft staff and partners. A special thank you goes to Alexandra Mazina, Patricia Santos, Athena Skliros and Ellen Drolette for sharing their contributions.