Playing to Foster Creativity and Innovation

My three-year-old daughter runs into the kitchen where I am preparing tonight’s dinner. “Can we go play now?”

“Not right now, I need to get dinner ready.”

I set the famous family pasta sauce to simmer, giving it one more quick stir, fill the heavy duty pasta pot with water to boil and start slicing bread to make garlic toast.

“Now?” She comes back in and asks.

“No, not now. I’m still working. Do you want to help?”

“Yes. I spread butter.” So she takes her finger, pokes it into the softened butter, and runs away eating the clump of butter on her finger.

I am the youngest, with older siblings who introduced me to Monty Python at an early age, but I really didn’t gain an appreciation for the work of John Cleese until my husband introduced me to the British comedy Faulty Towers. I have never laughed so hard—what a good cardiac workout . So, when my supervisor told me about an online video clip of John Cleese talking about creativity as I was preparing a workshop on writers block, I was interested.

“Now? Play now?”

At this time the water is boiling waiting for the noodles, the bread is ready for the toaster oven, and I think the pasta sauce may be overheating a bit.

“No, not yet, sweetie.”


Overcoming writers block is nothing more magical than problem solving. But problem solving, all problem solving requires creativity. Whether you are a scientist observing the world around you and coming up with an original testable hypothesis (the most creative act in the world in my opinion), or an operations expert observing the processes around you trying to figure out how to prevent a back log, or a financial expert observing funds coming in and funds going out and trying to make sure that in is more than out, you need to be able to solve problems creatively. You need to be able to look at the world around you, be it spread sheets, automated packaging machinery or typed words, and think new thoughts.


“Now is it time? Can we play now?”

The pasta sauce is boiling—an insult that is never supposed to happen to the famed family pasta sauce. The spaghetti is boiling over, and the toaster oven is beeping at me to let me know the garlic bread is about to burn.

I turn off the burner under the pasta, turn off the toaster, stir the spaghetti to calm the frothing bubbles. I grab the heavy, hot pot, turn to carry it to the sink and find directly in my path a three-foot munchkin.

“Now? Play now?”

“Now, when I am carrying a heavy pot of boiling water to the sink is not a great time to ask.”

I pour the steaming water into the sink so that the spaghetti lands into the waiting colander.

“I need chocolate milk!”

“I need to hear the world please.”


“Ugh.” The spaghetti somehow finds its way into a bowl, and I grab a sippy cup.

My daughter has figured out that there is a time and a place for play, and that play is important. And when she plays, she giggles and laughs a lot. I sometimes wonder what she knows that I don’t.

It turns out that John Cleese basically says about creativity what every three-year-old already knows: There is a time and a place for play, and play is important. And if you want to foster creativity, you better foster time for play, and laughter.

John Cleese equates creativity with play, suggesting that the people, no matter what the field of endeavor, who are the most creative (the most innovative; the best problem solvers), are the ones who have a facility for getting themselves in the mood to play.

But how in today’s world do we foster creativity, this facility to play when there are deadlines to be met, phone calls to be made, lawyers to be appeased? In this wireless, satellite driven world where we are constantly connected even in the most remote areas.

In a video filmed in 1991 in London, Cleese recommends five things essential for fostering creativity:

  1. Space
  2. Time
  3. Time
  4. Confidence
  5. Humor

Cleese says first and foremost that we must set boundaries of time and space. We must have a specific space where we can work undisturbed for a specific amount of time—an amount of time that has a definitive start and a definitive stop. That time has to be long enough for us to quiet our minds and spend quality time playing with and tossing about the problem we are trying to solve. And, it’s not play if it doesn’t have limits, which is why we need to make sure we have a stop time as well as a start time.

The second element of time deals more with being willing to take the time (weeks, days, months of play) necessary to “ponder” our problem, to be comfortable in the discomfort of not knowing how we are going to resolve the plot or fix the solution so that our minds have the chance to be as creative as possible.

The element of confidence refers to having the freedom to speak out, try on, play with crazy ideas, strange notions, because in play: Nothing is wrong. What if we did this? Let’s pretend that this happens. How about this? Play is experimentation. We should not edit ourselves, criticize our thoughts or those of our playmates if we are fortunate enough to be bouncing ideas off of others.

The element of humor Cleese describes as the quickest way of getting in to the creative mode. Humor opens us up, allows us to invite in those silly thoughts that eventually lead to great ideas and creative solutions. The more serious the problem, he suggests, the more desperately humor is needed to get us into the “open” creative mode where our minds can work toward truly innovative creative solutions.

As I look at the sippy cup into which I have just poured pasta sauce, and at the spaghetti which is now covered in chocolate milk, I sigh and decide that my husband can bring home a pizza.

My daughter asks again, “Now?”

“Now,” I reply. “Let’s play.”

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Michele Arduengo

Social Media Manager at Promega Corporation
Michele earned her B.A. in biology at Wesleyan College in Macon, GA, and her PhD through the BCDB Program at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Michele is the social media manager at Promega and managing editor of the Promega Connections blog. She enjoys getting lost in a good book, trumpet playing, knitting, and snowshoeing.


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