Happy Birthday Play-Doh!

How the Simple Act of Playing Boosts Creativity and Drives Performance

Written by: Jill Applebaum

Adult playing with colorful modeling compound on the table

In the old days (pre-COVID), when creative teams spent their days and nights in open workspaces innovating for brands over the din of fluorescent light and amidst email overload (reminder: Get those timesheets done) the Foosball table and in-game sounds from League of Legends served to transform even the grayest cubicle farm into play spaces where the mind could roam free.

There’s just something creative that happens when we step away from our desks and stop trying so damn hard. It’s why that old cliché about “the idea that popped into my head in the shower” holds so true. And why I keep a notebook on my bedside table. Because inevitably that thing I struggled to nail all day will flow out of me just as I give myself permission to mentally “log off” for the night.

The second I pop that plastic lid off of a Play-Doh container and that distinctive salty, musky bread-like scent escapes I’m instantly a 5-year-old again with a beginner’s mind undergoing a real-time mind shift from “we probably can’t” to “what if we did?!” 

Ironically, while toys and play serve to free the mind, they also help us focus on the task at hand. It’s why Play-Doh and focus groups go so well together. Makes sense that there’s a day (Sept. 16) to honor the coveted toy. It’s also the reason fidget toys became all the rage for the ADHD set and carried way beyond. Fidget-spinner collections were so popular a few years ago that I can recall my own son begging me for a diagnosis because he wanted access to those toys during class.

But I digress.

Travis Tae Oh, Ph.D., an assistant professor of marketing at Yeshiva University who earned his Ph.D. in marketing at Columbia University, studies the psychology of fun for a living. He insists that fun is essential to happiness. No argument here.

In a hybrid model, as we work from makeshift offices or corners of our very bedrooms, it’s incumbent upon us to put play time into our own days. 

In a NYC apartment, we definitely don’t have room for a Foosball table. But a PingPod opened up down the street.

I spend 30 minutes or an hour playing ping pong with my son as often as I can.

I have an infinity cube, a stretchy gumby, and a red container of Play-Doh in my desk drawer to keep my hands busy when my Zoom slate is extra busy or as I present an idea that I’m really excited to sell.

At the end of any given day, if you see Play-Doh under my fingernails, that means I was hard at play which translates to hard at work. And on our most challenging days, we’re building brands. We’re not operating jackhammers in 90-degree heat.

Let these toys serve to remind us of just how lucky we are.

Jill Applebaum is Chief Creative Officer at Public Inc.