Why Play is so Powerful in Adulthood with Recess Part 1

Digital Citizen

On this episode of the Digital Citizen podcast, Arielle Yoder and Zack Fine of Recess talk with Fastmail CTO Ricardo Signes about their company, Recess, and the methods they use to bring the benefits of play to the virtual workplace. You’ll also hear snippets from Rik and Fastmail COO, Helen Horstmann-Allen, about how Fastmail brings play into the workday in practical ways!

Episode Notes

Meet Arielle and Zack and learn how their respective theater backgrounds lead them to create Recess, a company that integrates play into the workday through a series of games designed for the online workplace. Arielle and Zack will share the importance of finding joy through play as an adult and explore the psychological benefits of doing so. They will also discuss how participating in activities like Recess can be a different experience for each person, especially focusing on how they encourage reluctant people to participate.

▶️ Guest Interview - Arielle Yoder and Zack Fine

🗣️ Discussion Points

  • Arielle and Zack started Recess early in the COVID-19 pandemic as a way of bringing play into the workday, and the company is founded on their conviction that play should be an integral part of every day - even for adults. Used in workplaces, play increases productivity, the ability to connect with others, and even general well-being. Neuroscientific studies have demonstrated the positive impact of play on the brain, and Zack and Arielle explain how play improves focus and adaptability, and fits with the biological legacy of humans as social primates.
  • Arielle and Zack try to structure Recess sessions based on their specific clients, and they visit the clients before holding a session in order to get a feel for the company dynamic. A typical session, though, will include a warmup, a brain teaser, moments for one-on-one connections among colleagues, soft skills, and something funny to conclude the event. Recess aims to provide both a personalized and well-rounded session, often taking and utilizing elements from Arielle and Zack’s theater backgrounds. A session might include mime, improv, drawing, trivia, or any number of other activities.
  • Understandably, not every team or every person is initially comfortable with the idea of bringing silliness into the workplace. If in getting to know a group before a session, Arielle and Zack notice reticence, they will try to start the session by leaning into silliness in a simple and easy way. With this gentle start, the room will often start to warm up quickly with a desire to play more. Arielle also finds that the idea of silliness more than the experience of it tends to spark reticence. Most people, once they get into a session, will have fun!
  • Arielle and Zack hope that they as facilitators can take the burden of responsibility away from company leaders, helping to create light and playful cultures in the companies. They love to see bits of fun stick with an organization, knowing that the team is reaping the benefits of play and improved work culture in the long term.
  • When it comes to being better digital citizens, Arielle and Zack first warn listeners that, in digital relationships, it can be easy to lose the simple aspects of human connection and find that people become merely 2-D in our minds. Their aim to create a feeling of human-to-human connection through theater points to our broader need for opportunities for human connection separate from work. We should, they urge, recognize that there are multiple parts of the self that are not all devoted to the workspace.

⭐ Takeaways

  • Play is something for everybody. Scientists have shown that play is good for your brain, so you should go for it and experience the benefits.
  • You should remember in your online interactions, you want to center connectedness with other people. You’re there to have common communication with these other people, and that’s what you want to focus on. Don’t lose sight of the fact that everyone online is a 3-D person, even though you may be stuck looking at them through your 2-D Zoom window.
  • Be kind to yourself. Give yourself breaks from being online when you need to. Rest is important. Information fatigue and audio/visual chat fatigue are real phenomena, and you need a break from that just like you need a break from anything that tires you out.

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Ricardo Signes: Welcome back to the Digital Citizen Podcast. I’m Ricardo Signes, the CTO of Fastmail, the email provider of choice for savvy, digital citizens everywhere. Here with me is my colleague, Fastmail COO, Helen Horstmann-Allen.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: Hi! I’m Helen. Today, Rik will be talking to Arielle Yoder and Zack Fine, who are the co-founders of Recess. Rik, can you tell our listeners who they are and what Recess is?

Ricardo Signes: Yeah. Zack Fine is a teacher of clown and games, currently on faculty at NYU, who’s worked on and off Broadway as an actor, director, and playwright. Arielle Yoder is an actor, writer, and director who’s worked on and off Broadway and made TV appearances on Law and Order: SVU and FBI Most Wanted. Together, they co-founded Recess, which integrates play into the workday through a series of games designed for the online workplace.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: What will the three of you be talking about this week?

Ricardo Signes: We’ll be talking about the importance of finding joy through play as an adult and exploring the psychological benefits of doing so. We’ll also be discussing how participating in activities like Recess can be a different experience for different people, with a focus on how they get people who are reluctant to play, to participate.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: Ooh, that’s a good one. I am always down for almost any goofy activity, but I definitely know that that’s not true for everybody. Rik, what’s your favorite goofy thing that we have in our office?

Ricardo Signes: Oh, that’s a tough one. We have a lot of goofy things in our office. But maybe, to my great shame, my favorite goofy thing in the office is the Australian shouting button, which is just a button and you push it, and it shouts some ridiculous fake Australianism like, “Crikey!” It’s great. It’s probably good we only have the one.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: Rik, how do you incorporate play into your everyday meetings?

Ricardo Signes: Well, now that you bring it up in this context, I think the answer from now on is going to be I will bring that button with me to all my meetings. In some future episode, we can report back on how that goes.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: That sounds good. I, of course, find myself incredibly hilarious. One of my favorites is, of course, our disco ball because anything with a musical cue is always a good time. It’s just so surprising when the disco ball goes on and the dancing queen comes up, and everybody just kind of has to have a smile on their face.

Ricardo Signes: Disco ball is good. It’s good to have an office that is not entirely boring and serious. We do not have any professional clowning in the office at the moment, but I feel like we do all right at keeping things light.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: Yeah. I guess that might actually be my responsibility. Did you know I have mime training?

Ricardo Signes: I did not know that.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: Amongst my many not very strong, but very broad performing skills.

Ricardo Signes: You’ll hear more about what that might be like in this episode. You’ll also hear about the benefits of integrating play into your life. If you stick around to the end of the episode, I’ll give you some takeaways, which are things you could actually do to become a better digital citizen, and you’ll find those also on our website at fastmail.com/digitalcitizen. Also, if you want to get involved with this season of the show, check out the survey listed in our show notes and send us a question. We’ll be randomly choosing some to answer in our end-of-season bonus episode.

Ricardo Signes: Today, we’re talking to Zack Fine and Arielle Yoder. Early on, during the pandemic and lockdown, they started Recess, where they worked to help teams make it through the drudgery of working from your bunker. Now, don’t let me mangle explaining what Recess is in the first minute. Arielle, Zack, could you explain, in a nutshell, what Recess is, what you do?

Zack Fine: Recess brings play into the work day, so that is essentially what we set out to do. We believe that play is an integral part of every day and should be not only for children, but for adults. If we can integrate that play into the work day, we, and also scientists who are much smarter than us, have proven that it increases productivity. It increases people’s ability to connect and, essentially, their general wellbeing.

Ricardo Signes: Zack, how is this connected to your background teaching clown and games?

Zack Fine: What we teach with clown and games is two-pronged, in a simple way. We teach a group how to play well together, and then we teach actors how to have fun and play well together on stage, which can include a lot of improvisation exercises. Then primarily, we teach a performer’s relationship to an audience as well. But part of the clown training is about uncovering the parts of the self that sometimes are paved over by adulthood. That playful childish spirit in each of us, the silliness, the sort of ridiculousness, the joy that we naturally, hopefully, experience when we’re kids. In a nutshell, it’s about finding your fun, finding your silly, finding your joy, and doing that often in front of an audience. I’ve been teaching that for over a decade at different schools, and that’s just been a huge part of my life. Fortunately, there’s a lot of neuroscience backing that supports this positive impact of play on the brain. That’s really what’s been driving it as well, which is this really will increase the connections inside the community of your particular workforce in a way that people have found really impactful.

Ricardo Signes: What can you tell me about the science? I don’t want to try and put you on the spot and tell me that the results of studies, but what does the science tell us beyond it’s effective? Why does it work? Do we know that?

Zack Fine: Well, I can give you both an anecdote and try to give you a little bit of the studies that have been shown. There’s a wonderful book by a writer named Stewart Brown on play. I actually have it right here.

Arielle Yoder: Oh, nice.

Zack Fine: Yeah. The book essentially is laying out how play scientifically improves people’s ability to focus. That if we are focusing on one thing for a particular amount of time, if we can break up that focus with some non-linear, non-structured play, it helps us to engage more deeply with what we’re doing. The anecdote that this book uses is Einstein keeping a violin nearby as Einstein would work on a problem. To break up when he was struggling with a difficult mathematical problem, he would take out his violin and shake up his brain, in a way. Essentially we found that when you spend the entire day on one particular thing and you break it up a little bit, that it gives the brain a rest in a positive way and helps you reengage with the problem.

Arielle Yoder: It also helps you become just more adaptive as a human being. Again, going back to Stuart Brown’s book, I think he uses a couple of examples just with animals and how they engage with play, even different kinds of species and how they engage in playful activities together or what is perceived as play. How if we can, sort of, turn our brains towards a more playful culture or shake up our brains, like you were saying, in that way, we become more adaptive to what’s being thrown at us. It’s, in some ways, a mindfulness trick as well. We’re able to adapt more quickly to scenarios that usually would scare us or cause us to shut down.

Zack Fine: Play is part of our biological legacy as social primates, and so we have developed this ability to be playful as social primates to try to make sense of, organize, engage with the world. Incorporating it into the day is the part that we’re excited about, which is how to improve one’s day and the work that one’s doing with play.

Ricardo Signes: I assume that we can’t be like Einstein. We’re not going to hand out violins to everyone and say “Here we are. Go at it. Scramble your days with these.” I think if I had all my coworkers playing violin on Zoom with me, I would not be on Zoom much longer. What activities do you do? Can you tell me a little bit about the kind of play you used to… That you bring to people to give them structure in their play?

Arielle Yoder: Yeah, we try and structure each session based on the people that we are working with. We always meet with a client beforehand to talk a little bit about who the team is, and the problems that they’re facing, and what they’ve done before in terms of team building, so that we can personalize things for them. But a general session is always going to include warmup as a way of bringing people together as much as possible, sort of everybody coming into the space, leaning in, potentially going off mute so that they can interact and get their voices in the space.

Arielle Yoder: It’ll include a brain teaser to get people sharp and thinking in different ways. It’ll include moments where you can connect one on one with a colleague that involves breakout rooms, as I’m sure you’re familiar with, but getting people to have conversations one on one that they wouldn’t necessarily have during the day or in a team meeting structure. Then we’ll end with something that improves soft skills like vulnerability, creativity, that sort of thing, and we’ll end with something very silly and fun that just boosts morale. We try and include a well rounded type of scenario for each client in a personal way.

Zack Fine: Yes, we have amassed a large catalog of games and activities, and we’re always trying to invent new ones for Zoom that are ways to build the fun and the connection. We have taken a lot of things from our theater background and adjusted them, so that they’re not always about putting people on the spot improv wise, but sometimes some groups really want to lean into that type of improvisatory or clowning, those types of things. We’ll cater the session for them in that way, whether it’s utilizing improv games that get people to try to do mime or types of charades or things like that, or it’s actually drawing games that are getting groups to actually draw together and utilize that. Or, we do some basic stuff that like trivia, and riddles, and puzzles and things like that.

Ricardo Signes: I think of myself as pretty extroverted. I’m kind of up for anything. Still, if someone said to me “We’re going to bring someone in who’s going to teach us how to play together on Zoom. We’re going to add this structured goofiness to our day,” there would be alarm bells going off. I assume you see some of that reticence in people that you have to overcome. How do you get people interested?

Zack Fine: We try to get a read on the group a little bit prior in the intake and get a sense of what type of group it is. If it’s a group that we feel like might have a lot of reticence around silliness, then we’ll try to lead into it in a very simple, simple way. We find that improv can scare some groups, for sure, and can have really powerful impacts at other times. We find that putting people at ease, keeping it very simple at the start with just some simple games that get people playing in a way that doesn’t put individuals on the spot. The room will often start to warm up pretty quickly into a desire to play a little bit more. We try to make an environment where anybody can engage with it in the way that they want. There’s no sense that you have to have your camera on or you have to engage in a specific way.

Arielle Yoder: Yeah, I’ll just add that I do find that it is the idea of silliness that causes the reticence and not the actual experience of it. Going for this idea of the playground, the first time I played Four Square, I didn’t want to do it, because I didn’t really know how it worked and I didn’t want to look silly in front of my friends. But the experience of it is always fun. Yes, I do think that there is some reticence and fear around the idea of doing something goofy, but a community of people coming together and everybody participating in it is always fun. We always get buy in there because at the end of the day, we’re building something together. Like Zack was saying, if we start very simple and very low stakes, people will warm up to the idea of just having fun because that’s all it is just having fun.

Ricardo Signes: What are you hoping that people take away from their Recess experience, and why is it so important to have people like you facilitating these experiences?

Arielle Yoder: I think the creating a playful culture is one very important, and two, something that a company or a client could take from the spirit of Recess and implement that in any way that they want to. But yes, I do feel like a part of the reason why people like to work with us multiple times, or over a course of time, or just monthly, is because they already have enough to do. I’m sure you might have experienced this, but if you get on Zoom and you’re in a leadership position, the added responsibility of bringing play as well as the rest of your agenda for that meeting, that’s a lot. It’s nice to hand that off to somebody who does it professionally.

Zack Fine: I will say one other thing, which is that one of the things we do an exercise where we help people of build a superhero work name and then they sort of change their name on Zoom. Often those superhero work names that people come up with have stayed inside of those organizations and have been a source of fun for them. We’ve heard lots of stories that have evolved about the character of this superhero work name. That type of thing has been super satisfying because it’s a little bit of humor inside of this video chat experience that can, I think, really brighten people’s day.

Ricardo Signes: I have one last thing I want to ask. Our podcast is called Digital Citizen, and what we try to talk about is the way that all of our lives are affected by computers, and data, and the internet, and all the ways that it is in our life. My question is, what is your best advice, as far ranging as you like, for people who want to be better digital citizens?

Zack Fine: I think that with a big question like that, we sometimes think that there is a big and complicated answer, but often it goes back to something quite simple, which is in the digital relationship, the thing that can get lost are the simple aspects of human connection and going from a two dimensional, to a three dimensional experience of people. How do you create three dimensionality? That three dimensionality means that somebody isn’t just Zack, the person who does this job, but they have a diversity of experiences in their life. We come from the theater, and so we’re trying to recreate or bring from the theater that feeling of connection of human to human connection that a theater has at its best, an ensemble has, and the artists have with an audience. That’s my advice is that we try to retain the opportunities for a human connection that is separate solely from work.

Arielle Yoder: We have at our fingertips a wealth of information that our brains were never actually meant to process in its entirety. You know what I mean by that? One, I think what I have to remind myself of in terms of being a better digital citizen, I have to remind myself that it is okay if I can’t process everything immediately. I can give myself a little bit of a break. If I can find ways to engage with this digital space as it is meant to be engaged with, I think is like a tool. It’s meant to be engaged with as a tool to help better our lives. That’s the ideal. Engage with it as a tool that is also a part of my very well rounded life. My life exists outside of the digital space as well as in the digital space. Recognizing that there are multiple parts of ourselves that are not just entirely devoted to this space, I think is a way to become a more well rounded citizen, hopefully a better digital citizen.

Ricardo Signes: Well, that’s it. I hope you enjoyed the interview, but I want to come back to something from earlier. I kind of want to ask about more questions about mime, but I’m not going to. I’ll ask you instead about another one of your… I believe you described them as bad, but many skills. If you didn’t, that’s what we’re going to go with, but juggling. I heard you hosted a juggling bootcamp recently.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: Yes, that is true. I went to the beach with my children for a week and decided that it would be fun for us all to learn how to juggle. I got a book, I got juggling balls, I had a very enthusiastic team of people. They were all super into the idea. It turns out that my children have roughly the same performance skills that I do. Very into it, maybe not terrific, none of us can yet juggle, but we have worked out a really great comedic act where we leverage the fact that we can’t juggle to amuse our audience.

Ricardo Signes: Should we be looking at bringing a juggling bootcamp into the office? Is that how we next want to integrate play into our work day?

Helen Horstmann-Allen: We could. I could definitely get shown up by several members of our staff who would be like “Helen, will be teaching the 101, and once you able to get the ball for one hand to the other, you could move up to 201 with us.”

Ricardo Signes: All right, Well, sounds good. Again, we’ll have to come back to how this goes in the future.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: All right, so back to your conversation with Recess. What do you feel like the key takeaways of your conversation today are?

Ricardo Signes: Play is something for everybody. Scientists have shown that play is good for your brain, and you should go for and get the benefits. You should remember that in your online interactions, you want to center connectedness with other people, right? You’re there to communicate, to have a common communication with these other people, and that’s what you want to focus on. Don’t lose sight of the fact that everyone online is a three dimensional person, even though you may be stuck looking at them through your two dimensional Zoom window. Finally, be kind to yourself. Give yourself breaks from being online when you need to. Rest is important. Information fatigue, audio video chat fatigue, these are real phenomenon and you need a break from that, just like you need a break from anything else that tires you out.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: Well, we hope that you can take these actionable steps towards better digital citizenship. We’ll be back in two weeks with the second half of our show with Zack and Arielle, so subscribe if you’d like to see what we talk about next.

Ricardo Signes: Thanks for listening to Digital Citizen. Digital Citizen is produced by Fastmail, the email provider of choice for savvy digital citizens everywhere. Our show is produced by Haley Hnatuk. Special thanks to the incredible team of people behind Fastmail. Digital Citizen is hosted by me, Fastmail CTO Ricardo Signes. You can subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast player. For a free one month trial of Fastmail, you can go to fastmail.com/podcast. For more episodes, transcripts, and my takeaways, you can go to digitalcitizenshow.com.