If Kids Could Be Dolphins: The Power of Creative Play

dolphin-ball.jpgWhen I swam with wild dolphins in Roatan, Honduras, my eco-savvy bro told me to ‘break away from the humans, dive deep, engage their curiosity, and the dolphins will lead the way in play.’

As you can see by this amazing video clip, he was right.

As we twisted and turned beneath the surface, free diving at about thirty feet, I realized these masters of play could teach humans a thing or two about imagination, grace, innovation and the poetry of play.

These majestic mammals create their own fun, exhaling air in the middle of a vortex to play with their own bubble rings, prodding and poking until they finally go “pop!” Now, contrast this with childrens’ vast overly structured, over-consumption, over-dose of media & marketing intake as well as over-scheduled commitments involving sports/play.

What can we learn from the dolphins?

Today’s NPR Morning Edition echoes this need for imaginative, creative play and purports that it equates to kids in control of their own world, using imagination as the key to understanding ‘how things work’ so to speak.

Without it, kids lose skills relying on screen time, leagues and lessons enveloped by rules instead of whimsy and self-regulation to understand cause/effect and self-control.

Fellow Age of Conversation 2 co-author, Roger von Oech, who is also President of Creative Think and inventor of those fun little ‘Whack Packs’ we used to use in client meetings to shake up the roundtable at ad agencies, was quoted as saying,

“Necessity may be the mother of invention, but play is certainly the father.”

I like that.

digital-overload.jpgAs both a Creative Director and nonprofit founder, if I pushback from the computer even a short while, it brings me clarity and context to come back refreshed, revitalized and brimming with purpose and perspective.

After all, how can one come up with compelling programs to glean outcomes from inventive creative if they’re stuck in a rut of passionista mode and nose to the grindstone myopia?

It literally took last weeks’ computer crash for me to halt operations, reassess the over-achievement mode, shore up the flanks, then get outside in the sunshine, throw the ball at the dog park and SEE and FEEL the power of play…

It brought clarity of vision, calm, quiet, peace in the outdoors, hiking amidst nature and a better grasp and understanding of the massive technology we’re undertaking layered atop an ongoing ‘to-do’ list pinging around my popcorn brain…

And here’s the best thing…

dave_mathews.jpgThe Dave Matthews Band refrain from “When the world ends” finally subsided…In other words:

Our readership did not nosedive. Our business did not tank. Our programs did not fold. Our allies did not screech. Our partner orgs did not pester. Our blog did not drop out of Technorati’s analytics.

So why, why, WHY is it so hard to play?

Adults can be chalked up to an ‘environmental given’ and peer/sociological predisposition for keeping up with the Joneses’ aka ‘survival’…but kids? Ugh. How sad is THAT?

I wrote about this phenom, observing the VERB Yellowball viral effort for children via the Verb Now CDC/USDHHS site partnering with Radio Disney and such.

Kids would literally be thrown a ball and ask, ‘um, what do I do with it?–followed shortly by the acquisition/consumption pattern, “Is it free? Can I keep it?”

playdough-gracefam.jpgLikewise, in Shaping Youth’s ‘sim city’ counter-marketing demos of unhealthy nutrition outcomes, we use hardened Playdough to simulate sodium/hardened arteries and sat fat clogs…And get this…most of these kids had NEVER seen/touched Playdough before! (this is at the ‘at risk’ schools)

These same kids had every pricey media gizmo, cellphone, etc., known to man, yet they were thrilled to take home 99 cent Playdough for their homework assignment to create cool forms and see what happens when it’s exposed to air overnight to simultate hardened arteries/junk food outcomes, etc! Go figure.

Oh—And students swapped colors with each other too…creating blends, marbled effects, etc. Another surprise? Cookie cutters. The kids had never even seen ‘em before!

We were stamping out ‘healthier choices’ to simulate ‘Lunchables’ with cool/wholesome options for food, and they literally asked, “How do you do it? How does this work?”

(And hey, when they learned you could use the cookie cutters WITH the Playdough…well, that was almost too much joy to bear!)

You see my point here?

Cheap, easy, imaginative play has given way to pricey, controlled, sophisticated technology when neuroscience points to the value of emotional and cognitive development instead!

npr_logo.gifThe NPR podcast & report called this “executive function” which is essentially kids’ ability to regulate one’s own behavior, control emotions, resist impulses, exert self-control and discipline via improvised props, games, stories, puppets, and critical cognitive skills.

Funny how we have to assign jargon to make things sound official when we really need to look to those beautiful, elegant dolphins to toss a ball, blow a bubble and combat visual-motor skill impairment by simply devoting time each day to free play?!

dolphin-glass.jpgI remember last summer with the preteens I played a ‘dolphin pool game’ where I’d pretend I was a trainer requesting the kids in the water to be dolphins and I’d call out ‘somersault, forward flip, open eyes under water, find the penny, catch the ring’ whatever…and they’d zoom around like sea mammals eager for ‘goldfish’ treats…

It was their request, and seemed oddly manipulative to me, but they kept begging for ‘more’ to ‘show off’ their skill sets…

I realize now that what they really wanted was to be ‘directed’ rather than rely on ‘free play’ imagination of diving underwater bridges between legs or inventing games of their own…even though there was an element of ‘fantasy’ in play with them posing as dolphins.

With that, I challenged them to come up with new games and new play that built upon their swimming prowess and echoed the calls of the wild.

We DO need to learn from the dolphins to blow our own bubbles and learn from our own play patterns…we can use our own imaginations to turn a dent in the cement of pool plaster into a cavernous cave. A rough hewn scratchy surface to be a subplot to a larger story of ‘how it got there and why’…It’s all based on imagination, which we’ll lose if we rely on directives rather than free play.

Rock on you brilliant dolphins. Kids? Watch and learn…

Visual Credit: DMB: Businessweek; DIY Playdough: PlanetGreen Discovery (photo credit: GraceFam)



  1. Not really relavant, but … I didn’t know you were a Dave Matthews Band fan!

  2. A_Londoner says

    Absolutely amazing footage of the dolphins blowing air bubbles! There’s something about their child-like demeanor, and playfulness that definitely helps serve as a reminder that us techno-files (And everyone else!) need to un-plug once and a while, experience the real world for a while.

  3. I’ve always loved to play and be with a dolphins and swime with them…. your lucky ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. I AM lucky, Sarah! Especially to have them in the wild like that instead of some resort swimming pool. My brother is a former park ranger and nature photographer and he taught me early on that to get closest to the animals, you have to act like them…It makes for some funny moments, but it’s wonderful. (ever gotten on your hands and knees to hangout with a mountain goat? ๐Ÿ˜‰ Fun!

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