Why Play Is Essential, Especially Now
Over the last 25 years, over 2 million children have grown up in Playworks schools across America. Many more — a whole generation in fact — have been influenced by cultural shifts Playworks and its founder, entrepreneur Jill Vialet, have pushed ahead. In a boon to parents, educators, even CEOs, Vialet just released a new book, her third, called Why Play Works. It starts off with the science and theory of play, then advances to the heart of the book: 20 small steps that lead to big change in this moment. We caught up with Vialet to hear about Playworks’ 25th anniversary and play’s importance in this moment.
Ashoka: Jill, first things first: what counts as play?
Jill Vialet: Ha! While games are a kind of play we’ve focused on in Playworks schools, there are many types: imaginative play, rough and tumble play, cooperative play, parallel play, to name a few. In fact, play shows up in our lives in many ways. More than anything, I think of it as a mindset, an attitude of being present and open to whatever unfolds, not overly attached to an outcome. There’s another thing that’s important here: play is act of pure volition. Think of it: you can’t be forced to play — and you can’t force it on anyone else, right? For people of all ages, it unlocks human agency.
Ashoka: Interesting… and true! You’ve dedicated 25 years to making sure every child in America gets to play every day. Where did this begin for you?
Vialet: I was a kid who needed to play every day, plain and simple. I really did not do well sitting at a desk all day. I still don’t! I started Playworks because I had such huge empathy for kids who didn’t have access to daily play. That inspiration still drives me — that and getting to see the transformative experience of our young adult coaches. They remind me how affirming and hopeful and necessary it is to be a person who gets to make a difference in the lives of others.
Ashoka: Your new book is out, congratulations! Why did you write it?
Vialet: You know, the book was such a gift to me personally, which is true to my whole experience of leading Playworks over the years. I had included myself in our layoffs when Playworks contracted significantly in 2020, with all the pandemic school closures. As founder and CEO, I found all this stressful of course — but I also welcomed the opportunity to look back, interview lots of folks who’ve been involved with Playworks over the years, reflect on what’s shifted in the culture, and what’s ahead.
Ashoka: Such as…
Vialet: Take the science and theory of play that has really made significant strides. This was not something I was tracking when I started Playworks — we were acting on what we saw working and showing results in our schools. But brain science has progressed in the two-plus decades since, and now we have a far richer understanding of the science behind the impact of a play — and a growing awareness that play, not unlike sleep, is a keystone activity that affects so many other aspects of our lives. On cultural shifts, I also call out in the book the extent to which play has helped move gender equity forward. When we first started running girls leagues, many families were uncomfortable with the idea. Now the visibility of women and girls in sports is dramatically different. From coverage of the women’s Olympic soccer team to the WNBA — the world is just a different place! It’s not totally where it needs to be, but it’s far closer, and I’m proud Playworks has been a part of that.
Ashoka: You interviewed a bunch of people for the book — what’s most misunderstood about play?
Vialet: Well, even outside the book, I’ve talked with thousands of people, all walks of life, over the years — kids, teachers, coaches, parents, CEOs, neuroscientists. And two things come to mind off the bat. First, play is too often understood, dismissed really, as frivolous and childish. People miss the extent to which play makes us human. When done skillfully, play is such an effective catalyst for seeing the best in one another, for creating opportunities to really lean in, get comfortable being seen, and to invite other people in — in a reciprocal and shared way. Second point here: people still think play is the opposite of work, as in play vs. work. Once we learn to integrate play into our work lives, we see that it’s so far from that.
Ashoka: Say more…
Vialet: Over the years we’ve run workshops with companies big and small, including Google, LinkedIn, and Salesforce. So, what opportunity do these companies see? They see that play works on many levels. It sparks creativity. It helps people navigate ambiguity and stay open to serendipity. These are the skills involved in problem solving, co-creating, collaboration. And when we bring together diversity of thought and a bias towards action, these represent the very foundational sorts of mindsets that are at the heart of human centered design. I’m excited that Google X is sharing the book with some their staff so their people can read it and then we’ll get together for a book club with the staff teams. Folks are welcome to bring their kids to participate in the session, and I’ll lead them in games that work online to remind people what it feels like to play. The way to really grok the power of play is to play yourself. And frankly speaking, we all need to be reminded of this right now.
Ashoka: It sounds like CEOs will enjoy the book — who else?
Vialet: If you are someone who works closely with kids, it’s a great book for you. If you are a parent or a family member of a child, or intuitively or professionally work in the realm of play, or you have an inkling that there’s more to play than we’ve understood, this book is for you. It will prepare you to go out and fight gallantly for the importance of play. And I guess the last group I’d suggest — if you’re wrestling with this particular moment in American life, around the reopening of schools, the re-imagining of workplaces, the recommitment to our democracy, there’s a lot this book that calls out about how starting with play provides a powerful foundation for co-creating the future that we all want to live in. A playful mindset allows us to wrestle with complex challenges so that we stay curious and open to possibilities. And if a door opens to something as a result, play keeps you ready to step through that door. A playful mindset is going to just help us all navigate this time of profound ambiguity and accelerating change and, for many, fear — something that we all really need right now.
Jill Vialet is founder of Playworks and the co-founder of Substantial and Oakland’s Museum of Children’s Art (mocha), and an Ashoka Fellow. She is the author of three books: Recess Rules, Substantial Classrooms, and Why Play Works. She is currently a Lecturer at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (better known as the d.school) and University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.