Photo: Thinkstock

2 of 20
Natalie Rusk, of MIT Media Lab's Lifelong Kindergarten Group, has spent more than 20 years studying learning and creativity—and has found that play is more than fun and games. We asked her about the group's remarkable research.

Q: Lifelong kindergarten! That sounds like fun. What does the lab do?

Rusk: Our mission is to help children grow into creative thinkers, but we develop technologies for people of all ages. One, called Scratch, is an online environment that lets you design interactive games, animation, stories and greeting cards.

Q: What have you learned about play?

Rusk: Play teaches us to relax, explore, connect. If you're on an airplane and the pilot makes a joke in his announcement, that's a kind of play that puts people at ease. A really great yoga teacher will help you approach the poses in a spirit of delight. Play is also a great way to learn about resilience. When a child plays, she fails and revises: "My blocks fell over! I'll try again."

Q: How do we bring more play into our everyday lives?

Rusk: Start by giving yourself permission. And then do it, even if it feels silly. One way is to engage the senses: Eat blindfolded, roll down a hill, blow bubbles, make crazy mouth noises. Go to a toy store and buy the most appealing blocks or chemistry set for yourself, and then see what you can do with it. Use play to figure things out: If you're struggling to explain something, try expressing your ideas with a sketch. We've found that using a nonverbal medium helps. It may sound obvious, but hang out with kids—put them in charge of the afternoon's activities. Above all, create. Look at the stars and make up new constellations, then tell their stories. When you see something that doesn't work, brainstorm ways to fix it. The materials for play are available—you just have to change how you approach them.

—Anya Kamenetz