Earlier I wrote in hashtag avalanche about the whole “boys with toys” and #girlswithtoys business. Recently I heard something which made me wonder if I had missed an important point: what if the key thing is not toys or who is playing with them, but the act of play?

The person I heard was discussing play in a completely different context. But he said one thing that stuck with me: when you’re playing, you may take what you’re doing seriously, but you don’t take yourself too seriously. This to me seems key to understanding what scientists who are really involved in their work are doing. The important thing is the experiment, or the data analysis, or the hypothesizing; it’s not who’s doing the work or what they stand to gain or lose from it. Feeling playful and unworried might help lead to a state of flow, which I think is probably essential for lots of scientific work.

If a sense of play and experimentation helps you focus, that’s one good reason to cultivate play in science. The other aspect, of not taking oneself too seriously, provides another good reason. I think many of the problems we have seen recently in scientists relating to one another, or to society at large, can be boiled down to Someone Thinking Themselves Rather Important. If a playful attitude toward science helps people see themselves in a less serious way, that seems to me to be a good thing too. This article on Science as Play discusses some of the same ideas.

It’s often said that children are natural scientists – and of course many are also experts in play. Maybe they have something to teach us Serious Adult Scientists about, not playing with boys’ or girls’ toys but about playing. I wonder what we could learn?