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Recess: Taking us to Culture School

9090538-largeWant to see an organizational culture at work in its purist form—as in, go outside and see culture happening right before your eyes? If you do, head over to your local school playground during recess and prepare to be educated.

I know it may not seem like it today, but playing at recess was a lot of work. It was physically and mentally challenging, required proficiency in a variety of equipment, and forced us interact with all kinds of people, not all of whom were the nicest kids in the world.

Let’s take a look at how playground equipment and social roles came together to create what may have been our very first organizational culture.

 

PLAYGROUND EQUIPMENT

The Slide

The slide was the first piece on playground equipment where we were really and truly on our own. No parents holding our hands, no easing into the thing. We had to climb that ladder, abandon all common sense, let go, and let gravity do as it pleased. The slide was all about building courage and self-confidence. It was the apparatus that told u—and those that would be our protectors—that we were big kids now, that we could be left to navigate the adventure that was the playground on our own.

The Swing

Swinging was most fun when someone bigger and stronger pushed us from behind. Eventually we’d gather enough momentum that we didn’t need that person any longer, but they sure got us going! In this way, the swing was about taking on different roles and contributing in a way that meant success for the team. It’s where we learned that helping our friends achieve success gave us a sense of accomplishment as well. It’s also where we learned that others could help us reach our goals.

The Monkey Bars

The thing that set the monkey bars apart was the need for strength, endurance, and agility, none of which came easily. Getting all the way across took work and determination. At first, all we wanted to do was to get to the other side. Then the goal was to make it two rungs at a time, then three, and so on. It was on the monkey bars that we learned that hard work could be fun, and that failure is an important and necessary ingredient in success.

The Jungle Gym

The jungle gym is where we established pecking orders. Sometimes the senior kids got to inhabit the top spots by virtue of their age. But this wasn’t always the case. Skill, size, strength, and level of influence all played a part in determining our status on the jungle gym.

The Teeter-Totter

The teeter-totter is where teamwork shined. Slides, monkey bars, and jungle gyms didn’t require teamwork to be enjoyed, but a teeter-totter—all by our lonesome—was a pretty dismal exercise. The teeter-totter taught us how much fun and rewarding teamwork could be.

The Playground Itself

As children, we didn’t give safety a great deal of thought. In fact, the more dangerous, the better. We just wanted to have fun. But to those responsible for our well-being, safety was paramount. But just as in deserted lots with rusty nails and broken glass were too far on the dangerous side, some playgrounds were too safe to be useful as a play area. A balance between safety and effectiveness had to be found.

 

SOCIAL INTERATIONS

Relationships

Going to the playground by ourselves wasn’t much fun. Sure, we could use most of the equipment, but it was the social interaction that made the experience an adventure. It was here that we forged and strengthened relationships that would last all through our childhood. On the other hand, it was also in the playground that we learned that not everyone was nice. There were jerks and bullies that enjoyed nothing more than to make us miserable. The social interactions of the playground—both positive and negative—taught us about behavioral norms. It taught us how to moderate our behavior to be accepted into the group—in the case of our friends—or to ensure our self-preservation—in the case of the bullies.

Communication

Playgrounds can be a cacophony of sound and language. And no just spoken language (although that’s what we hear it in all its sheer glory), but body language, facial expressions, energy, and every other way kids communicate with each other. Kids may not have the most extensive linguistic vocabulary in the world, but they are fluent in every other form of communication.

School Grades

Remember moving up to the next grade each year? Third grade to fourth, fourth to fifth, all leading up to the C-suite level of grades: the sixth grade. Each year we were promoted, and with promotions came greater autonomy, status, and confidence. We got to make the rules, maybe sit at the top of the jungle gym, and be the envy of all the other kids. But we also had more responsibility. We were expected to be an example and to set the tone for the playground.

Picking Teams

When senior kids picked teams, nothing was cooler than to be picked first. And nothing was more humiliating than to be picked last. It was an indictment of our competence, the level of contribution we could make to the team, and our status in the group.

The Teachers

Teachers decided when it was too cold or too wet to play. They decided what constituted bullying and what was just run-of-the-mill roughhousing. Teachers set the rules on what sort of behavior was allowed and what would get us sent to the principal’s office. They posted playground rules at the entrance. In all, teachers set the standards and policies that governed playground behavior.

 

There are many more examples, but you get the idea. The point is this: what made playing at recess so educational is also what made it fun. This same principle can be applied to the workplace. What makes your business so successful should also be what makes it fun and engaging. In many ways, the playground had more to do with forging us as adults than did the classroom. I’d hazard to guess that you can remember any number of both positive and negative playground experiences, but only a handful of those of you sitting in the classroom. In the same way, what your employees engage with the most at work is not what you do or produce but how and why you do or produce it.

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