Play works because it taps into your subconscious mind – and research shows that great ideas usually emerge from the subconscious.

Keith Sawyer

Author of Zig Zag - The Surprising Path to Greater Creatvity


Children spend a huge proportion of their waking hours engaged in playtime. They imagine new worlds, create new spaces and invent fanciful narratives. Adults do a lot less of this; some have eliminated playtime altogether.


The obvious answer is that with adulthood come responsibility and its accompanying tasks.   There is simply no time for play. 

Neuroscience adds an important nuance to this answer. Charles J. Limb is a Medical Doctor and researcher with a particular interest in music, specifically Jazz improvisation. Through a series of experiments, Limb was able to observe what happens in the brain when Jazz musicians engage in collaborative improvisation. During this musical playtime, many different areas of the brain are activated; however, the area of the prefrontal cortex responsible for moral judgment, inhibition and self-monitoring shuts down. At the same time, centres for personal expression and the sense of self become particularly active[1]. In other words, during this playtime, the mind is letting loose!

This explanation also makes sense in the context of human development: the prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to develop; as we mature, we learn to monitor, moderate or even inhibit the behaviours that allow for free-form play.  

The good news is that the ability to engage in play is not lost as our brains develop. Playtime is sometimes judged as wasteful and frivolous, particularly in the context of work or school, and correspondingly little time is allocated to it. This is a mistake. When adults engage in play, various parts of the brain are activated, which dramatically increases the ability to think creatively. Playtime should be encouraged. 

This principle is not lost on all organizations. Some of the biggest names in corporate creativity have included play in their work schedules. This is called “tinkering time,” during which employees are encouraged to play around with whatever project they like, provided it is not related to specific work tasks. Here are some examples:

Tinkering time has produced some very successful innovations, including Post-it Notes, Gore-Tex fabric and Gmail, to name a few.

Playtime is fundamental to the human brain and to creativity. It needs to be considered as a component of productivity and a necessary part of innovation, whether in business or in education.


Anstead, Alicia. “Inner Sparks.” Scientific American. May 2011: 84-87. .