Kids at play

The Role of Serious Play in Coaching

Serious play is a hallmark of The Moment Institute’s approach to learning and development. We know from experience that bringing a sense of play can make it easier for people to tackle serious things they might otherwise be intimidated by.

Yet serious play does not come naturally to most adult learners. Most of us have been conditioned to approach learning from a more cognitive and earnest place. Play is for kids . . . we have serious work to do.

And yet, the pressure this often creates can actually impede our ability to learn, our willingness to try new things, and our readiness to change ourselves.

So how can you get your clients to embrace serious play? And what does it look like within a coaching environment?

Keep reading to discover:

  • How you can facilitate serious play with clients
  • The similarities between coaching and improv
  • The emergent structure that serious play requires

A Note From Dr. David Drake:

At one point in my life I explored watercolor painting, a hobby I came to enjoy. While taking a class one day I shared a table with a young woman who was relatively new to the process — yet whose paintings were consistently better than mine. I was curious to figure out why. In looking at our paintings one day, I had an epiphany.

I came to watercolor painting from photography, with its attention to filling the frame. I brought with me a solitary focus on what I was painting that often led to flat, two-dimensional paintings. What I was missing was a sense of Yohaku — a Japanese term for the white space in an ink painting. Adding balance to the whole, the ‘empty’ space is as important as the image itself.

I shifted my focus from how can I paint well, which led me to worry about ‘getting it right’, to how can I let the painting emerge from the white paper. I realized that the best watercolor paintings I had seen in galleries allowed the paper to shine through. They were more three-dimensional and invitational to look at.

I developed serious play for use in coaching for the same reason: to invite people to let what is to be learned emerge from their experience in the session rather than trying to make it happen. In so doing, they are freer to explore and experiment with what is possible — and learn and grow faster as a result.

Learning Is Social, Creative and Improvisational

Consider how babies learn to talk. They begin by mimicking sounds and playing with gibberish words, and their parents engage in playful ‘baby babble’ to encourage this creative process. Over time, this play facilitates their acquisition of language.

Adult learners would do well to become similarly creative and improvisational in the course of learning with and from others. One big difference is that baby babbling is widely considered to be cute and endearing while adult “babbling” is not. Our fear of looking foolish often prevents us from engaging in learning or trying something new. We often end up in some version of trying to learn how to swim while sitting on the side of the pool.

It’s crucial, therefore, your sessions offer a safe space for clients to engage in serious play. Like with parents of toddlers, it needs to be safe enough for people to try new things yet open enough where they build the confidence to do it on their own.

Similar to the language games that adults play with babies who babble, your role involves making meaning together with your client through serious play. As a coach, you can encourage your clients to ‘babble’ as they try out new behaviors or ways of being. It is a prerequisite for learning and development that is missing from controlled or cognitive approaches to coaching.

Coaching With Serious Play

As your clients engage in serious play, you must remain agile in your position as you move between your clients’ needs for support for readiness, scaffolding, and action.

This aspect of coaching is not so different from what goes on during improv shows. If you’ve ever been to or seen one, then you know that the people on stage work with everything available to them in a continuous creative process.

The rules of improv translate well to this part of your role as a coach:

  • Attend to the moment as it is
  • Accept and use whatever is present
  • Advance the action or story by taking the next step

Improvisation encourages participants to embrace the unexpected and take risks. It incorporates scaffolding and humor to support serious play, and it provides a context for clients to step into who they are becoming.

Improvisation is both an attitude and an activity in support of learning and development.

Serious Play Requires Improvisation

You have to be willing to advance the story that your client presents without controlling or even knowing what the outcome is going to be.

Naturally, this focus on improv and serious play leaves no room for preset agendas. This doesn’t mean that you’re not outcome-oriented. We know you care about meaningful outcomes! It just means that you’re not presumptive about how your client is going to get to those outcomes or even that they know what the outcome for a session is in advance.

When you are willing to pay attention to what is happening in the moment, you can step into a session without any preconceived idea about what’s going to happen. You trust that everything you need is right in front of you and you can improvise using what has emerged that feels important.

Letting Go of Agendas and Plans

Walking into a session without a plan may sound scary. Once again, we can learn from the art of improvisation:

An ID Way graduate recounted his experience on a real improv stage:

At first, I stood on the side with the others, only half present to the scene in front of me and half running through the Rolodex of tools in my mind. Stepping out onto the stage without a single idea in my mind of what I was about to do was terrifying the first time.

I remember, though, being absolutely in the moment with my scene partner and amazed at how effortlessly this weird scene emerged from our mutual attention to each other. It was less terrifying after that.

When you attend to the present moment in coaching sessions, you’ll find that you have all the resources you need to support your client’s serious play. Radical presence allows you to coach with more grace and agility because you trust the proverbial paper on which you are painting, the field in which you are working. Your focus and commitment is to WHAT IS, not what it should be.

Similar to the ID Way grad’s experience above, coaching this way may feel scary at first. The fear is often related to our conscious or unconscious need to be in control. Over time, however, you’ll discover that so much more is possible if you create safe and fertile spaces in which clients can improvise with your support. They will find their way to what they need and want.