According to a growing pile of research, playtime is one of the most dependable methods of facilitating creative thinking and development in children. Not only does it build the very prefrontal cortex circuits responsible for "aha moments" and problem solving, but also the capacity for plan development (or in other words, the skills to pull an idea from the clouds to reality). Wiring your brain for these skills can bring immeasurable value to your life and career. So when, exactly, is your last chance to develop them?

 

According to psychologist and play champion Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, probably never. But there's a catch: It all depends on the way you play. Video games? Not great. Painting without a plan? Awesome. Here, we break down unstructured play - the style having fun that's proven to be a creative brain builder, and offer some tips on how to build more of it into your life.

 

Unstructured Play 101

 

Defined as activity without rules, directions or coaching, unstructured play differs from structured play  thanks to its homespun style of navigation. Whereas structured play follows pre-defined steps (for instance, advancing from level to level by completing pre-defined tasks), unstructured play is built on pure imagination, fueled by the kind of "purposeless fun" that, for example, leads children to invent their own games and rules to play them by, or chefs to experimentally blend flavors.

 

Interestingly, this abstract style of activity isn't just helpful in building the capacity for creativity, but it also maximizes the occurrence of creative incidents as a whole. Science is still working to fully explain why our best ideas seem to come while we're least focused on discovering them, but research already backs the notion that, yes, your best ideas probably do come in places like the playground (or the shower).

 

Optimizing Your Playtime

 

Maximizing your creative brain with play looks easy on paper, but it does require breaking the lazy habits that suck up most of our off-time (like mindlessly checking our phones). But once you sink into the practice of unstructured play, you'll never miss the moments when your precious time off was spent scouring your Facebook feed. Here's how to get started. 

 

1. Elevate your off time

For kids and adults, unstructured play happens when the mind runs wild. You can increase the frequency of this happening though simple lifestyle changes, like not checking your phone first thing in the morning, attempting dinner without following a recipe, or choosing doodling over watching television.

 

2. Schedule unstructured free time into your work day

Studies show that a 15-20 minute break between each hour-long burst of work optimizes productivity. Shut down technology and other distractions, then pick up a colored pencil, and your new down time can also become the perfect vehicle for keeping your creative mind sharp.

 

3. Don't judge your efforts (or the process)

In her interview with Pacific Standard, Ms. Hirsh-Pasek said that when adults do play, "it's more like we play by the rules" - an approach reinforced by the very real chance of failure that often accompanies adult creativity (especially in the workforce). In other words, when we use our creative muscles in tasks that are open to judgment, even the bravest among us are probably not fully flexing them. The biggest step towards enhancing your creativity with unstructured play isn't just about lifestyle changes, but acceptance: Can you give yourself 30 minutes a day to truly play without judgment, and give other adults the same courtesy?

Published on: Jan 27, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.