Imaginative Play and How to Improve Yours

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing” --George Bernard Shaw

A few weeks ago I knocked on the front door of my brother’s home and walked in without waiting for a response, as I always do.  (Don’t ask why I knock first, it’s a useless habit of mine).

It was my regular Thursday evening visit and the only day of the week when I leave the office early so I can hang out with my two nephews before their bedtime. 

On this day, as soon I walked through the door, my seven-year old nephew screeched, “Uncle Siggy!  Uncle Siggy! Hurry, jump unto the island, they’re going to eat you!” 

“Me? Who’s going to eat me?” I asked.

“The sharks!” He yelled back.

“And the alligators,” the five-year old added.

Both boys were standing on the couch with toy hockey sticks in their hands, frantically motioning for me to join them on the couch. 

“Quickly, Uncle Siggy! Hop on the islands to get to the big island.” 

I looked around the disheveled living room.  There was an explosion of toys everywhere and couch pillows strategically placed around the living room floor.  

Without missing a beat, I hopped from pillow to pillow and launched myself unto the couch with the two boys.  

“Oh my god, thanks guys.”  I gasped.

“They almost got you,” the seven year old said,  “Our only problem now is keeping our supplies up.”

“Our supplies?” I wondered aloud.

“Yeah, for our injured comrades.”  They gestured to a group of bandaged stuffed animals on the couch with us.  I looked down at my knee which was currently crushing Toothless the dragon, who was swaddled in a hand towel.

“Oh, excuse me,” I said, gently patting the injured toy.

“They need supplies from the giga-factory.”  

The giga-factory was their toy box located in the far corner of the living room. Their father is an engineer, so of course, they would go with a name like “giga-factory.”  

The couches and cushions were the only safe spots.  Everything else was shark and alligator-infested water.

“Got it,” I said.  “So what’s my mission, Captain?”

For the next half-hour, I was thrown into a fantastically fluid world of survival, danger, heroic rescue, tragic loss and brave triumph (aided by hyper-futuristic technology or sorcery, not sure which).

Afterwards, on my drive home that night, I started wondering when I stopped having that sort of imaginary fun.  I’m not about to start hopping from couch to couch in my living room, all by myself, pretending my floor is molten lava or something.  My neighbors would think I was bonkers (or more likely, ask to share whatever ‘shrooms I had taken).

Why don’t I play like that anymore?  Why don’t most adults?  

Adults are Kids Too

It's generally accepted that adults are less playful than children, but why is this the case and is it necessarily a good thing?  My curiosity on the matter led me to several books about play and it turns out adults never really stop playing--at least not the most creative ones.  The nature and subjects of adult play are different from that of children but the effects on the brain are the same.  Playfulness is an indispensable component for cultivating and maintaining creativity throughout one’s life.

As I’ve explained in previous chapters, immersing oneself in a particular domain and exerting the discipline required to master a craft is an obvious prerequisite for producing innovative and impactful work.  However, mastery of craft is only a fraction of the creative calculus.  In the book, Wired to Create, positive psychologist, Scott Kaufman explains that “cultivating a childlike sense of play can revolutionize the way we work.”

Injecting a sense of play into otherwise grueling work keeps us creatively nimble and more adroit at recognizing potential problem-solving breakthroughs.  We are fortified against the stress induced from long hours of creative work when there’s a playful lightheartedness about the work itself.  Kaufman’s research also shows that playful work provides the optimal learning conditions for both children and adults.  

Think about the kid in your sixth grade class who could recall reams of vital playing statistics for every Chicago Bulls player since 1996 but still couldn’t tell you the names of the first four presidents of the United States.  You can guess which set of data the kid likely played with more often.

Adult Barbie Dolls and Fire Trucks

When it comes to playfulness in adulthood, the definition of a toy expands beyond just Barbie dolls and shoe-sized fire trucks.  For creatively inclined adults, almost everything can be a toy worth engaging in imaginative play.  

All manner of objects, personal experiences, memories, emotions, ideas and fantasies are suitable toys for adult play.  When you hear an interviewer ask a famous musician or author, “where do you get your inspiration from?”  You can bet the artist is about to share what his or her imaginative play toys are.

Grant Wood, the artist behind the iconic piece American Gothic, was engaging in this type of mental play when he came up with the concept of his most recognized painting.  While on a drive through rural Iowa, he made a sketch of a farmhouse that caught his attention.  When he got back to his studio Grant started playing with different views of the property and imagining what sort of people might live in a house like that.  Eventually, he settled on using his sister and his dentist as models for the couple in the now famous painting.

Emotions like love and loss are popular sources of play and inspiration for musicians and poets.  However, the great thing about the limitless nature of imaginative play is that the source could be anything.  Even, let's say... deodorant.  

According to record-industry lore, the line, “Kurt smells like teen spirit,” was scrawled on Kurt Cobain’s wall by a fellow bandmate.  The message was intended as a mild condescension towards Kurt and the brand of deodorant worn by his girlfriend at the time. However, when the Nirvana front-man read the line he thought it sounded deep and rebellious and was thus inspired to write the 1991 hit song, Smells Like Teen Spirit.  You’ve got to love the power of imaginative play.

Another product of imaginative play familiar to writers, filmmakers and game designers is world building.  The sort of elaborate world building produced by J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S Lewis, George R. R. Martin and George Lucas maintain their roots in childhood paracosms.  

Creativity Psychologist Michelle Root-Bernstein defines paracosms as detailed imaginary worlds created by children usually between the ages of 8 and 12.  Children engage deeply with these worlds filled with complex rules and imaginary characters in what she calls worldplay.  

This type of play differs from simple pretend play which is more ephemeral and usually only lasts as long as the child is engaged in the moment.  Worldplay is more persistent and continuous in the sense that the child returns to the world over and over, adding rules, extending character narratives and generally expanding the world’s systems.  

Even after world building and worldplay ends around puberty, Root-Bernstein has found that this richly creative exercise can be an indicator of creative giftedness in adulthood.  Several creative luminaries like C.S Lewis and famous Nintendo game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, report engaging in extensive worldplay as children and indeed drew upon those worlds in their later work.

For some adults like J.R.R. Tolkein worldplay never really stops.  Tolkein was a philologist with a profound interest in linguistics and literary history.  It has been reported that he invented the vastly detailed worlds of Middle-Earth and all its lore as an “excuse” to explore the imaginary languages he created.  In fact, the volume of instructional manuals and guides he produced describing the incredible world and history of Middle-Earth exceeds the total volume of purely fictional stories he completed about those worlds.  These stories include the famous classics The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Imagination Games

A great benefit of our brain’s neuroplasticity is that we can benefit from imaginative play throughout our lives.  For adults, imaginative play can be incredibly rewarding on a mental and physiological level.  This sort of internal respite from the shackles of professional adult life fosters curiosity, ageless vitality and of course, increased creative thinking. 

So here are a few exercises you can try for yourself to reap the benefits of your imagination at play.

Analogy Portrait ID

The goal of this exercise is to analogize the descriptive attributes that may appear on a standard government issue ID of a famous person with a noun (an object place or thing). The substitution criteria are as follows:

Photograph  an animal

Height a cartoon character

Hair a geographic location

Eyes a movie or TV show (unaffiliated with the subject)

Voice a song

Sex a restaurant

Place of Birth an element from the periodic table

Date of Birth a number between 1 and 365

Profession a gemstone

Address a famous quotation (not made by the subject)

Signature one playing card from a standard 52-card deck

So for example, let's say I pick Tiger Woods, then my answers could look like this:

Photograph  Chipmunk

Height Ned Flanders

Hair Joshua Tree Park

Eyes The Shawshank Redemption

Voice Let Her Cry by Hootie & The Blowfish

Sex Bahama Breeze

Place of Birth Fluoride

Date of Birth  29

Profession Emerald

Address “You never really learn much from hearing yourself speak.”
—George Clooney

Signature The king-of-clubs

Here are a few names to get you started: Bill Clinton, The Dalai Lama, Elon Musk

Music Muse Stream

This is a fun exercise I often use to loosen up my imagination “muscles.”  

The instructions are simple.  First, you’ll need a pen and some paper or a device you can type quickly on, such as a laptop with Google Docs.  Next, visit your favorite music streaming service and pick an instrumental song with no lyrics or vocals and hit play.  As you listen to the song, ask yourself, “if this was the soundtrack to a movie in your head, what scene would be taking place right now?”  What images, sequences and narrative would be unfolding on-screen to accompany this music?

Write down the story as you see it unfolding in your mind’s eye.  Do this while the music plays and allow the music to drive your imagination, no matter how absurd.  Try not to censor yourself during this process and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the end result.

Titled Picture Completion

For this exercise you’ll need three sheets of blank white paper and a pencil.

Here we go.  Pick any three popular song titles from the following list:  

“Cry Me A River”

“I Want To Know What Love Is”

“Welcome to the Jungle”

“Respect Yourself”

“Get Ur Freak On”

“All Apologies”

“Come As You Are”

“I Shot the Sheriff”

“Smoke on the Water”

Bitter Sweet Symphony”

Now, write each song title you selected at the top of each blank piece of paper.  When you’re done, each piece of paper should have a song title written across the top of the page. 

At this point you’re probably wondering why a single letter from each song title has been highlighted.  Well, here’s where you find out:  Write that letter right in the middle of your sheet of paper. You should write the letter large enough to take up the middle third of the page--roughly the same size as a toddler’s hand.  

Your imaginative task is to transform the letter in the middle of your page, into a picture/drawing that expresses or complements the title you’ve written on the page.  This doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. In fact, it works better if you don't agonize over the quality of the drawing and just create the most appropriate line sketch you feel matches the song title.  

You may find the mild tension of creating an image (constrained by the initial strokes) that matches the song’s theme quite gratifying. 

Feel free to attempt these exercises as often as desired.  After doing this regularly, the rewards of a strengthened imagination will be yours to reap.


All images by Freepik