I was at my children’s hockey practice yesterday and had the opportunity to speak to my father who was there to see his grandchildren skate. He had just dropped off one of his old high school friends at the airport. His friend was a former coach, teacher, and superintendent of a school district and had made the comment that one of the best things a coach can do is let the kids have 10 minutes of free time on the ice.
That makes sense. Play is a very important part of a child’s life. It is a primary way children learn about the world around them. It teaches them how to interact with other children, how to solve problems, and helps them develop a passion for life. Have you ever seen a happy child that doesn’t know how to play? In hockey development with very young skaters there are lot of games. They play soccer, they race, they skate in patterns on the ice that teach them to use both sides of their blades both forward and backward, and most popular with the kids is playing sharks and minnows or freeze tag. But what they are really learning is a passion for the sport. As they develop, they are learning skills and identifying with each other by learning together. But most of all, they are learning a model of skill development that can be used in other areas of their lives for the future. This is the first reason leadership development activities should include play.
As we grow up, we naturally develop out of things like childish narcissism, dependence, and identity associations like our family, schools, and sports teams that define who were are. We develop eventually into our own individual, who’s identity is not tied to what we do, but who we are at deeper levels. I am no longer dependent on my sports teams for my identity. I am me, and I just happen to also play sports. Sports is no longer who I am, it has been objectified and reintegrated as something I do instead. I own it now and I can control it. It no longer controls my identity.
Unfortunately, with this growth, it seems that many of us grow out of spontaneous play. We have schedules after all, and adults are just supposed to act a certain way. It would be weird for adults to start a snowball fight in a parking lot or break out into song in public. Where a child finds pure joy in play, adults have to organize, schedule, determine rules, make teams, decide how to determine a winner and on and on. We have lost the understanding of play.
Play gives us an opportunity to develop skills and build relationships. Working in lots of play into leadership development activities help organizations develop leaders. Just as hockey skills can be mastered in play, so can life skills of adults. In your leadership develop activities let your organization and team just play and build relationships with each other. Play teaches us how to connect human to human and find joy in that connection. Any sports or work team that actually connects with each other in a meaningful way will be far more engaged and effective in their work. Are your leadership development activities not working? Get your group together, give them a ball and walk away.
Does this sound like a dumb leadership development lesson to you? It is well understood that a good leader must care deeply about the organization and the people in it. Sometimes we just need to change our point of view and meet people where they are. Sometimes that is best done by going to a place where we have all been; our childhood. I don’t think there is a better way to shore up relational bonds than to build them upon play. A good teacher and leader will integrate and model the intended learning objectives along the way.