Two young boys acting silly in a street scene.

How PLAY can help your WORK

The company I work for, Six Red Marbles, develops technology-based educational materials for use in schools and other settings. Six Red Marbles has six core principles for developing materials for learners. One of these principles is “play is productive.” In a nutshell, the principle states that learning is a creative adventure, and if learners are having fun being creative then they’re more likely to explore, ask questions, and take productive risks.

Two young boys acting silly in a street scene.
Creative play helps us learn, whether we’re children or adults.

I’ve been thinking about how this creative-learning principle applies to our creative efforts in writing and illustrating for children. The first session I attended at the NESCBWI conference in May, From Stage to Page: Using Creative Dramatics to Inspire Writing, reinforced this principle. Through a series of exercises, Lisa Kramer encouraged participants to inhabit our stories: to sink into a setting, to answer interview questions as a character from a work-in-progress would answer them, and finally, to play a character from one of our works in progress. And that’s “play” in two senses—playing the character the way you’d play a part on stage, and playing in the sense that you did as a child playing make-believe, when you pretended to be someone else. You could call it improvisational theater, but really, it’s playing make-believe.

I chose to play Jordan, a character from my chapter book series Resident Aliens. Jordan is very different from me. For starters, Jordan is 8 years old (which I was a long time ago) and male (which I never have been). He’s also active and impulsive; he moves first and thinks second—if he thinks at all, because he’s pretty sure that the thing he’s already doing is the right thing to do. I chose Jordan because he’d be a challenge. I’m more like his friend Cal, a character who’s quiet and still and thinks so much about the right thing to do that sometimes he misses the right moment to do it.

Once group participants had chosen characters, we took turns interacting with characters from someone else’s story, as played by that character’s creator. It was a BLAST. Jordan went toe-to-toe with a dragon, was snubbed by an older adventure-seeking girl, took a troll’s club, and I don’t remember what else. The other characters—or rather, their creators—seemed to be having just as much fun. The experience felt like it tapped into the same part of my brain that lights up when I’m on a roll writing, when things come out that I didn’t expect that I look at later and go, “whoa!” And in the process, I learned a couple of important things about Jordan: that he has far more comic potential than I realized, and that he can be a stronger force for moving a story along—in the right direction or the wrong one, depending on the story’s needs.

So here we were: We were playing. I was having more fun than I’d had in months. And, just as the “play is productive” principle says, I took risks, explored my character, and was constantly asking myself the question, “What would Jordan do in response to this? And that? And the next unexpected thing that happens?” I had a couple of important insights about my character, along with a general realization: through play, I can quickly learn a lot about a character, or a setting, or a theme, and my work will be better for it.

Play is productive. Give it a try! Play make-believe with the children in your life, grab a risk-taking writing buddy, or just try it alone in an empty house or somewhere outdoors. Will you look like you’re crazy? Maybe. But anyone who has a creative pursuit in their life will understand.

How does play help you engage with your work?

Photo credit: Klaus Schrodt on Pixabay.


    1. Lisa, thank YOU for offering the workshop! It was a fantastic way to start a great weekend, and as you can tell, I’m still inspired by it. I really feel like you gave us a tool for engaging with our characters in a real way (well, as real as fictional characters can be, anyway!)


      1. As long as we don’t start having too many conversations with them and they don’t start answering back even with nobody there, I think it’s all good. 😉


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