Kids_Creativity_iStock_CroppedSome people think that play is a four letter word. Alright, alright. Technically, it is. P-L-A-Y. It’s the perception of play at work that gives it that expletive feel. In fact, play should be the only four letter word that you use at work.

If you play at work it is perceived as being “unprofessional” (I would do air quotes but for some crazy reason that’s lost in the written version).

In healthcare we mistake professionalism with being dull and lifeless. When we promote this notion we are creating automatons and sucking the life out of those that we work with or who we help to lead.

That’s wrong. So. So. Wrong. When we do this we are killing individuality, community, creative thought, problem solving, and resiliency.

Play embodies all of the elements of professionalism that we, as nurses, hold so dear.

Let’s explore how this is so and not just some schpoop that I’ve concocted from my sofa with a lovely cup of java at my side.

What is Play?

Play is a choice and a state of mind. This gives you power in a world that is otherwise dictated by guidelines, policy, procedure, and rules.

The work that nurses do everyday is intense and filled with a complexity that is difficult to describe to others. We need to play to create a psychologically safe space for ourselves to reduce stress.

Integrate Play at Work

If you are a nurse there are several options for you to integrate play with your colleagues and your patients. When you begin to play let other people know that you are playing and not looney tunes. Ask them to play with you. I love saying, “Play with me.” As adults, how often do we get to say that?

Here are some ideas:

  • Just laugh. Not creepily or awkwardly. Do it in a way to relieve stress and to not take things too seriously.
  • Funny Really Bad Accent Day-
    • Sometimes I just launch into a funny bad accent and use it throughout the day. When I pick up the phone I explain to pharmacy, dietary, or whoever that it’s funny really bad accent day. I can usually get them to do it. It’s hilarious. It does wonders for building relationships with other departments.
  • Broadway Musical Day-
    • There have been times that I have announced that we are going to sing one song about what we are doing. Of course, you have to start it. Be brave. I always sing badly and I let that be known because this isn’t a singing contest. We are not on “The Voice”. We are on 4 West and I’m belting out tunes on collecting urine samples. I’ve even had physician’s do it.
  • Name that Tune-
    • Sing a tune from a TV show or from the latest hot hits and see if anyone can name it.
  • Create your own superhero names. Not porn names.
  • Tag Day-
    • Write a positive post-it and put it on someone or on their medication cart without them knowing it. Have them pass it on.
  • Begin the day with: “Let the games BEGIN!”

Be BRAVE. Be yourself. Include everyone in your play. You’ll be surprised at the fun that you will have.

Create your own playful games to supplement your practice. Be thoughtful and respectful of others. Be careful of pranks. They are not necessarily playful.

Play is Professional

Let’s debunk the myth that play is not professional.

When we play we bring our best game face. We are “good sports” and bring that positive aspect of ourselves that allows us to see possibilities instead of barriers.

Playing gets us to see problems creatively and we think outside of the box. It makes us more resilient to the complexities that can assault us during our day preventing burnout.

Teamwork is essential in playing games. In fact, through play we create a greater sense of team (community) by including everyone. We help each other to achieve a goal. This is done through the integration of individuals via communication. Communication is vital to have everyone understand what the game is and whether or not everyone is up to playing.

Fairness and respect are integral aspects of play. All people have an equal say. No one is left out, picked on, bullied, or gossiped about. When the play isn’t fair people are called on it because it’s not cool.

If you’ve noticed I’ve been underlining key words. These words are those that are associated with the behaviors of professionalism.

Let’s recap. Googly_Eyes_Oobi_Hand_Puppet

Professionalism is:

  • Teamwork
  • Fairness and Respect
  • Problem Solving
  • Positivity
  • Communication

In other words play is professional.

Let’s Neuroscience the Bleep Out of This Thing!

When we play at work we give a “wink” to the prefrontal cortex instead of swimming in the stress cycle whirlpool in our limbic system. By jumping out of the stress cycle we open up a window of opportunity to creatively think about situations to effectively problem solve instead of reacting.

Play helps us to rewire our brains and see situations in a new way.

Play gives us control over how we act and react.

Be brave. Be authentic. Be you.



Popova, M. (2014). Fixed versus Growth Mindset-Carol Dweck Retrieved from

Rosenberg Mackay, D. (2016). Retrieved from The Balance

Gray, P. (2008). The Value of Play 1: The Definition of Play Gives Insights. Psychology Today. Retrieved from

Robinson, L, Smith, M. Segal, J., & Shubin, J. (2017).

Buchsbaum D, Bridgers S, Skolnick Weisberg D, Gopnik A. 2012. The power of possibility: causal learning, counterfactual reasoning, and pretend play. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 367(1599):2202-12.

Carlson SM, White RE, Davis-Unger A. 2014. Evidence for a relation between executive function and pretense representation in preschool children. Cogn Dev. 29: 1-16.

Dickinson, D.K., & Tabors, P.O. (Eds.) (2001). Beginning literacy with language: Young children learning at home and school. Baltimore: Paul Brookes Publishing.

Fisher, Edward P. (1992). The impact of play on development: A meta-analysis. Play and Culture, 5(2), 159-181.

Gordon NS, Burke S, Akil H, Watson SJ, and Panskepp J. 2003. Socially-induced brain ‘fertilization’: play promotes brain derived neurotrophic factor transcription in the amygdala and dorsolateral frontal cortex in juvenile rats. Neuroscience Letters 341(1): 17-20.

Gosso Y., Otta E., Morais M. L. S., Ribeiro F. J. L., Bussab V. S. R. 2005. Play in hunter-gatherer society. In The nature of play: great apes and humans (eds Pellegrini A. D., Smith P. K., editors. ), pp. 213–253 New York, NY: Guilford.

Greenough WT and Black JE. Induction of brain structure by experience: substrates for cognitive development. In: Gunnar MR, Nelson CA, eds. Minnesota Symposia on Child Psychology: Developmental Neuroscience. Vol 24. Hillside, NJ: Lawrence A Erlbaum Associates; 1992:155-200.




2 thoughts on “Fair or Foul. Improving professionalism through play at work.

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