Monday, March 14, 2011

The Red Rubber Ball at Work

Written by Graduate Student Jenna Smith


Think back to when you were a kid, summer days were endless, made-up games consumed your time and eating lunch was not only an interruption but something that the adults did instead of playing. Back then, games of pick-up sticks, kick ball, marbles, tag and so on were just as critical as today’s latest news story. Kevin Carroll, former athletic trainer for the 76ers turned creativity and innovation guru makes the connection between childhood play, adult play and the workplace in his third book of the red rubber ball series titled “The red rubber ball at work”. Stories of play are told through the voices of some of today’s most successful thought leaders. Uniquely organized into sections about innovation, results, teamwork, leadership and curiosity, a reader’s inquisitive appetite is sure to be satisfied by imagining the likes of IDEO’s Tom Kelley, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell, Food Network’s Duff Goldman and Google’s Irene Au as children at play.

In Carroll’s words, “play is serious business” (p. 4). His book takes a biographical look at how some of today’s most creative and innovative thought leaders began their journey with play as a child and blend it with their careers today. Focusing on the ideal that “entertaining is also instructive” Carroll believes that “you can want to work just as you once wanted to play” (p.3). The merits of play are addressed by featuring current research from the founder of The National Institute for Play, Stuart L. Brown and other childhood play experts. These experts have found that “spontaneous play and fantasy play help children learn about the world, cope with life’s pressures, lead a group and think abstractly” (p.3). The red rubber ball at work” aims to take the merits of play into the workplace resulting in “jobs feeling more like fun than like drudgery, workplace satisfaction, increased employee retention, and, ultimately, more innovative, successful companies” (p.3).

While play is no amateur to the field of creativity, it is often considered the black sheep of big business. Questions such as, what is play? And how will it fit within the workplace? often arise when the topic is broached. A flavorful look at the “two kinds of play, playful play doing an activity for pure joy and productive play with specific goals or outcomes other than pure pleasure” are discussed (p. 4). Looking at productive play as one of the main vehicles to innovation, teamwork, leadership, curiosity and results, playful play is just the starting point for beginning productive play in the workplace.


Each profile in the book projects its own ingenuity as childhood stories are artfully blended with career opportunity. You can almost smell the homemade library Irene Au organized as a child, taste the caramel creations that Marribel Liberman distributed to her classmates during recess and see the masterful graffiti art that covers the New York City subway created by “Mare139.” While play is no small feat, it is the lifetime of memories that forever remain imprinted in these great minds. It was an easy read and visually attractive too, with a piece of a red rubber ball gracing the cover. However, sometimes the design of the book took away from the imagery created by the author’s stories. I found Carroll’s own stories that interconnected with the 31 profiles featured in the book to be thought-provoking and on the cusp of breakthrough thinking in the field. Not only are the stories a fascinating approach to a child at play, but they also present the raw creativity that exists at all ages which is something I believe the United States educational system and business industry should take note of. While this was a quick read, Carroll did present various sources which can assist a reader in delving more into the science behind play.


This book took me back to a time in my life when I didn’t give play a second thought. Reminiscing about a time in my childhood where I built a fort in a swamp behind my house, I realized that I was executing the main functions of play such as resourcefulness, planning, strategy, design, decision making, creativity, and risk-taking as Carroll notes “is a powerful force in human development”. As a child those functions were natural, I didn’t care that building a fort in a swamp behind my house was probably not the best idea for longevity of the fort. I just slapped on some boots, reinforced my base and did my best. Even though my fort never quite made it out of the prototype stage, it was one of the most valuable experiences in learning how to be resourceful. That skill has become critical in my current job in nonprofit fundraising. This deep thinking about me as a child is the intention behind the book. Carroll’s “hope is that, upon seeing the play-work connections in others, you will reflect back on your own childhood, take a fresh look at your working life, and recognize how opportunities to incorporate play already exist in your job or can come to exist” (p.5).


All in all, I recommend “The red rubber ball at work” for those who are looking to rediscover the wonder they experienced as a child. Page after page of inserting yourself into the lives of those featured in the book you can honestly see the wonder in that little boy’s eyes or hear the curiosity in that little girl’s voice. It is light hearted with a melody of sweet justice for all those children at heart.

Jenna M. Smith is a master of science in creativity candidate at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College. Currently, Jenna is employed by the Niagara County Community College Foundation working in the field of alumni relations and fundraising. Prior to her current position, she worked as the logistics coordinator for the 2008 Distance Learning and Change Leadership Program for the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State College. Recently, Jenna launched a creativity consulting business called Jennaration Creative where she hopes to combine philanthropic values with creativity and innovation concepts for problem-solving purposes. Jenna also focuses much of her work on integrating creative teaching and learning into the current educational system. Jenna holds a bachelor’s degree in public communication with a minor in creative studies as well as a certification in the FourSight thinking preference assessment tool.

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