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Play: Alternative Learning on the Job

Fay Johnson

By Emily Brooks

You may be comfortably established in your 9 to 5, with school a quickly fading memory, but the need to learn did not cease when you hung that diploma on your wall. Continual learning keeps you competitive and relevant at your job and provides you with the needed resources to make valuable contributions to your community. Many companies facilitate this continued development through training programs, corporate universities, and lunchtime seminars. However, they are also discovering that great learning happens through play. From gaining vital communication skills to increased creativity and team collaboration, companies are turning to play to build their workforce’s potential.  

Significant learning can be accomplished when “hiding really important lessons inside of fun,” said Michelle Honchariw, managing director of The Go Game, a company with a mission to help employees learn and grow through wildly fun, high-tech scavenger hunts in their cities. She is right. Research over the last several years has brought the power of play to the forefront of learning theory. Office environments and professional etiquette suppress the playful, personal way that we tend to build relationships outside of work. Infusing play into the workday, however, enhances our ability to learn about one another and ourselves, fostering the trust and collaboration that provide the basis for corporate thriving.

Companies can create opportunities for employees to explore and hone their abilities and relationships through shared laughter and recreation. These events should be incorporated wisely into work life. Rather than randomly schedule “fun” activities, “It’s important to do it when you feel there’s a need,” said Julie McDougal, senior human resources partner at IBM. Done right, creating space for play can be extremely effective: “That’s when innovation hits, that’s when conversations flow . . . and connections are made,” said Kevin Fraczek, manager of Intel’s corporate Great Place to Work program.


Relationships and, indeed, learning start with vulnerability. Without taking risks and sharing more deeply, you cannot achieve a greater level of connection and understanding. A relaxed, fun-centered environment facilitates such openness in a way that daily office life cannot. Take a cue from TeamBonding, a teambuilding company, whose Cirque de Team event provides participants an opportunity to enjoy themselves while challenging them to leap and swing outside of their comfort zone. Under the direction of professional performers, participants attempt to master a plethora of circus tricks from juggling to tightrope walking.

Activities like these tricks stretch your abilities, bringing you to a place of vulnerability and encouraging you to depend on others. “If you’re unfamiliar, you kind of need the help,” said TeamBonding COO David Goldstein. Don’t have the funds to hire circus performers to show you their stuff? Choose a skill to learn together from stand-up paddleboarding to orienteering.



Working as an effective team requires more than just learning to get along with John in the cube next door. Flexibility, coordination, and honesty: all are key. Activities that get people working together without the pressure of sales quotas or budgets help develop these skills. At F1 Boston, a kart racing facility, cross-departmental teams work together to run NASCAR racecars through full pit stops, mastering tactics that they can apply at the office to maximize productivity, morale, and teamwork. There’s a “lot of yelling, lot of screaming, lot of laughing,” said Glen Ransden, F1 Boston’s marketing director. “But there’s also a lot of learning,” he said. After the first round, teams evaluate their performance, identify personal strengths and weaknesses, and switch team members to positions where they will be most effective, practicing the analysis, strategy and flexibility crucial for productive collaboration. If you don’t happen to have a racecar on hand, you can still enjoy the collaborative benefits of some friendly competition. Get speedy in the kitchen instead for an office cook-off.



Work stalls, projects fall through the cracks, potential clients decide not to call back. The problem? Failed communication. Both workplace productivity and building relationships rely on effective exchange of ideas and thoughts. Casual, relationship-building conversations and persuasive communication skills alike blossom amid fun. During The Go Game’s scavenger hunts, for example, employees practice sensitive conversation and motivation while convincing a “Bawling Bride” to continue with her wedding. “Little do they realize at the time that this is sales training,” The Go Game’s Michelle Honchariw said. If you are short on time, these same principles can be put into practice in your office with some hilarious and stimulating improvisational theater games.



Old approaches cannot solve the new problems our rapidly changing world presents. We must arrive at fresh, creative answers quickly and effectively. In play, children constantly innovate, experiment, and craft imaginative solutions. From The Go Game’s haiku offs and compliment duels to navigating the uncharted waters of building seaworthy boats in less than three hours, opportunities abound within play to strengthen your innovation skills by responding rapidly to new situations and engaging in environments where they can converse freely. Don’t want to hire professionals? Create your own scavenger hunt full of hilarious challenges that require fast, out-of-the-box thinking.


Empathy leads to compassionate action, enables effective compromise and fosters deeper relationships. Your ability to extend empathy expands when you view others as fellow human beings with kids and bucket lists, struggles and sorrows, and perhaps even dirty dishes in the kitchen sink. Unfortunately, this perspective is often lost in the corporate environment as coworkers are seen merely as accountants, marketing managers or CEOs. By “having fun and laughing together” at a Go Game team building event outside the office, Heather White and her team were exposed to a new side of each other, said White, operations support manager at Clorox. They began to see each other as friends rather than coworkers, she explained.

At Intel, employees get to know each other through a variety of activities: going out to the movies, cheering on their favorite sports team or training for annual company races together, said Intel’s Kevin Fraczek. Such bonding times cannot be neglected even when working remotely. The global IBM takes time to relax and get to know each other during video conferences, spending quality time face to face even when separated by miles and perhaps cultures, said IBM’s Julie McDougal. Whether via webcam or in person, take some time to learn who people are, what makes them tick, what you have in common, and what differences you admire.