The Other Kind of Play for Grown-Ups

Play is often considered the opposite of work and strictly for children. ‘Adult play’, in comparison, is the domain of discreet brown-paper wrappers (or deleted search histories for the more digitally savvy) and would likely be discouraged as part of a museum visit. It’s a shame that play has been tarnished in this way, as either silly and juvenile or sexual and risque. It doesn’t leave much space for the happiness that play can bring to grown-ups (just try frowning on a see-saw), or acknowledging the playful aspects of ideas generation and creativity. I’m running a session on play with museum educators next week, so it’s a subject currently at the front of my mind. I’m interested in playful approaches to museum learning programming for all ages, as well as how Learning teams can be more playful when planning and developing their programmes.

Manchester Museum, with the support of the Happy Museum Project, recently published Rules for a Playful Museum, a manifesto which does what it says on the tin. The museum commissioned play specialists to work with their front-of-house team, with the aim of developing a playful environment for families. The resulting rulebook, which can be read online, offers suggestions and encourages a positive ‘yes, and…’ approach. Across the Atlantic, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) has launched PlaySFMoMA, which takes an interesting approach to play, focussing on artists and games. According to their website…

PlaySFMOMA is a museum initiative that supports the development of avant-garde and artist-made games, and investigates instances of games and interactive play throughout art history. Through research projects, workshops, events, and a designer-in-residence series, the program explores games as a creative medium and means of audience engagement. PlaySFMOMA provides a platform for artists working in games, and introduces museum audiences to the expressive potential of this medium.

At the V&A, the Schools Team has developed a simple and effective analog game called Six Degrees, inspired by the Six Degrees of Separation principle (that we are only six hops away from knowing everyone else on the planet – for example, a friend of a friend is two hops. This principle morphed into a popular movie geek game in the 1990s, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon). Our Six Degrees game provides a starting object and an ending object, totally unrelated and often on opposite sides of the building, and the challenge is, working in teams, to join the two by finding four intermediate objects, like links in a chain. Associations can be straight-forward (ie. both of these things are yellow), but I like to encourage some healthy competition and award a prize for the most unexpected, unusual and elaborate sequence. This leads to some very funny, baroque and surreal object combinations and gives the participants a fantastic new perspective on the collections. We use it with primary and secondary school pupils, and as part of teacher training sessions.

With pressing headlines and heavy workloads, I know it can feel like time-sucking faff to play about with new ideas and approaches when programming. However, it’s worth thinking about the care we put into encouraging creativity in others, and trying to stimulate those same impulses in our own teams. If I have to choose between a flipchart in a bare white room, or having a play with post-its out in the galleries, I know what my preference would be. There’s nothing worse than organised fun and ‘aren’t we wacky’ team-building exercises, but I do think it’s possible to generate an authentic playful atmosphere when planning; where the team feel free to be a bit daft, make each other laugh, and come up with good ideas. If you’re interested in this approach, the fantastic blog Design Thinking for Museums recently posted an article on ‘Why Play is Essential to the Design Thinking Process’. It includes plenty of interesting links to follow and useful tips for injecting play into programme planning – worth a look. I have also enjoyed noodling around the School of Play website; it describes itself as ‘a popup school dedicated to promoting happier adulthood through lifelong play’, and their blog covers many aspects of play, including the benefits for health, happiness and well-being. Who doesn’t need more of that in their lives?

Header Image: Free Basket, 2010, by Los Carpinteros, at Indianapolis Museum of Art

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