Guest Post Helen Duff

Helen Duff CIN11

“Be more playful!”
“Let yourself go!”
“Stop trying to get it right!”

We are standing in a circle. 12 of the team who keep this fantastic organisation working day to day, from front of house to marketing, logistics to learning, and me. Well, some of us are standing. Others are jogging around the edge, giggling hysterically, having broken the only rule. In this game, everything is allowed except laughter. The team are failing magnificently.

It’s my last workshop as the first associate artist for family inclusion at Attenborough Arts Centre and we are exploring the fundamental importance of play. It’s feels radical to have made this space, carving a couple of hours out of the normal working day to interact with each other in ways that reward messing about, noticing each others idiocy, and generally celebrating silliness. Inviting the imagination to open up in ways that seem completely natural when children are present, or a party is in full swing, but in the context of an office environment, appear awkward at best, at worst, painfully exposing.

So why do it? This is a theatre, a gallery space, an arts centre! The team must be cartwheeling into work, rolling in the aisles, breaking into song as they boil the kettle! If people working in this sector can’t make space to play together from time to time, championing the benefits of looking each other in the eye, sharing a smile, and letting yourself be unselfconsciously silly, what hope for the rest of us?

Having facilitated workshops for mental health charities, digital marketing firms, NGOs and in this context, arts centres, I can confirm that no group of grown ups is immune to the pressure of Getting It Right.
Adults the world over have drunk the cool aid, deciding that in order to be productive, professional people they must be properly serious. OK, so at the time of writing, politics looks like an exaggerated parody of Punch and Judy. But in most work places, people are still trying their best to behave in a manner that befits the professional environment, saving their play for friends, family and ‘free’ time. For all intents and purposes, living double lives.

My job is to convince people that play is at the very least permissible in the work environment, and at best, actively beneficial to their professional relationships, personal development and (dare I say it) productivity. It’s been at the heart of my work with the children, young people, carers and families who participate in the learning team’s programme, proving essential to sensory engagement, development and well being. As I’ve detailed in my other blog posts on this project, none of these ideas are new. Indeed, the participants of today’s workshop are well versed in the benefits of creative play. When asked to play a game in which we elicited anonymous responses to the question: I am at my most playful when, the answers were as follows:

I am at my most playful when…

I’m with my 4 year old daughter
I’m relaxed and happy
I’m not stressed or worried
I’m with people I love
I’m tired
I’m with my brothers
On holiday
Doing creative things
Relaxed with people I trust
I don’t feel like the only one who wants to

Instinctively, people understand that play happens when we feel relaxed or tired, our guard down so that we can allow ourselves off the hook; when we trust and are trusted; when we are with children who give us permission to be our most imaginative, full bodied selves; when we feel loved. I’m not reinventing the play mobile here. These things are obvious because we are all playful people at heart. My aim is to open a space where people are encouraged to remember, in the company of their colleagues, what it feels like to bring their most playful (read relaxed, imaginative, trusted, loved) selves to work.

Helen Duff CIN1

The best, indeed only way to do that, is to play. The barking commands the opened this blog – JUST LET GO!!!! – are all well intentioned, and can be found in every book about shaking up your management style going, but they are too often all talk no action. Another objective you have to hit whilst sitting frozen in front of your computer screen. No replacement for the act of whole heartedly throwing yourself into a game. So, after some delicious buddha bowls from a local deli (nobody should be expected to play on an empty stomach) we do exactly that.

Starting in an apprehensive circle, we push the chairs back and things rapidly disintegrate into the makeshift merry-go-round I mentioned at the start of this blog. Next, the staff literally throw themselves at each other in a game not dissimilar to musical chairs (this one really helped the new staff member, who was on her first day at AAC, to get a measure of her colleagues…) before a less physical exercise in smaller groups (clearly pumped, one team chose to turn their lanyards into bandanas) and a final reflection. And that was it. A few games, played over the lunch hour, at a time when people would ordinarily check twitter, catch up on the torrent of horror that is our current news cycle, spill half a sandwich into their keyboard and wish they’d gone for a walk. Reflecting on how they might support their colleagues to be more playful in future, the staff suggested:

Smiling at them
Wearing odd shoes
Leading more drama games just like this
Lunch together at least once a month as a solid space
5 mins games yes/ no etc
Start lunch time ping pong
Be more lighthearted
Encourage them to get away from their work at lunch
Make stronger coffee
Laugh with them
Smile more!

I have a sense some of these ideas might come to fruition; the smiling was already in full flow by the end of the workshop and I would be delighted if wearing odd shoes became a weekly occurrence. I’m sure the experience of connecting with each other across their different departments and disciplines will kick start a conversation about how AAC might employ a more playful approach to their work in future. Throughout my time there, I’ve been reminded why it’s essential I keep a playful approach to mine, too. Especially when working with children with complex needs and PMLD and their families, an area I’m really excited to continue playing within. My huge thanks to the learning team, Marianne Pape, Hannah Pillai and especially Georgina Barney for taking a risk on radical play, daring to go where the rest of their organisation would be fools not to follow!

Helen duff image

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