Yesim Kunter – play expert (#75)

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Yesim Kunter is a play expert and a futurist. As a consultant she develops “playful” experiences for Fortune 500 Companies, Universities, and Communities by applying ‘Play Philosophy’ to products, lectures, environments, communities, culture creation and market research with future scoping. She has developed ‘PlaytoInnovate® Workshops’ in order to train organizations with diverse backgrounds from kids to professionals for leveraging Creative Thinking and held talks at prestigious conferences such as World Innovation Convention, TEDx. Previous to her consultancy she had worked for Toys R Us, Lego and Hasbro as a play futurist.


Instagram: yesimkunter
Twitter: @miseyk

Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.

I’m fascinated by Nature! Sometimes I play a game by myself and try to trick my mind by imagining as if I’m 1-2 years old. One time I was observing a rose as if I was 14 months old, imagining that I have no clue what the green structure is all about and how the pink soft petal is attached at the end of it? When you perceive your surrounding as if everything is new and you don’t have the logic build to understand it, your mind starts to tickle.

Recently I got an allotment and have been very excited about it as I waited for 5 years. Once you start to understand your land and all the creatures around it, nature speaks back to you. This is what I very recently felt like as if I could read the symbols of nature! All of a sudden flowers, stems, thorns, soil, bugs, spiders, the smell, everything became alive! The ability to understand them from a complete new perspective made me feel connected and now all the flowers and everything has a secret to tell me, and I’m fascinated by the whole notion of it.


Why is play so important to you?

Great question, personally for me, it is the way I define life… Everything has playfulness in it. I’m quiet a serious person; take everything very deeply, so Play gives me a platform to create new meanings. It is very similar to my allotment, the soil and everything around it are the play elements that I can make new connections, invent new languages and understand in a new level of the life around it. And for me everything and anything has a similar analogy.


As a child what were your memories of toys and playing? How would a child today see things?

When I was growing up in Izmir (Turkey), we had only one Toy Shop. Those were the days that we didn’t have any trade. So everything was natural most of the time. I was lucky to have family members who would go to Europe and bring LEGO, or Puzzles and dolls. My favourite were puzzles and my LEGO Train Set. I still remember how it made me happy to complete them. But my real play was by the beach creating traps and digging underground tunnels. We as children were the master engineers on that.

I had a great time being outside, jumping from swings, climbing trees or water towers and completely making up stories. I had a great childhood, so many memories and so many connections. I’m lucky to be still connected and have strong bonds with my childhood friends; this is due to the way we used to play and use our imagination together; created so many stories!

Being outside, creating/ directing, mastering your own play is fundamentally important for our development. You gain so many skills, from collaboration, to solo play, leadership to physical skills such as balance, taking risks and being OK with yourself… It is an amazing skill to let children have their free-play time!

Kids today, will not know how to behave in an environment with no instructions, they have a hard time to facilitate or narrate their own play. That is a huge miss in the development of children.


Why do you think as we grow up we often leave behind play?

There are a couple of reasons of why Play loses its importance as we grow up. The reasons are hidden within the infrastructures that prohibit questioning, curiosity, exploration, and experimentation, risk taking. Slowly we adapt to these systems and our mind-set becomes very rigid.

However, we are playful beings!

And in fact although it sounds as if we left play behind, we just lose the awareness of Play, as it is transformed into something else; we just don’t name it Play. We are innately playful beings; it manifests itself in our conversations, humour, sarcasm, competition, art, decision-making, relationships and more. The danger is when we don’t go beyond the set frames and not question or be curious about anything, then we are transformed into systemized beings; this is the time Play is lost and depression starts!


Can you tell me about your career journey and how your thinking has evolved over the years?

I studied Interior Architecture; during my training whenever I was bored I would make wooden-wire characters more like Calder and Miró style. All I wanted to do was to play with variety of materials and give them life. I enjoyed the process of making things because it was I playing with ideas!  Then one day I learned that in New York at the Fashion Institute of Technology there is a Toy Design Major! Immediately my dream became clear, I wanted to be a Toy Designer! Understand children, psychology of play… And Moved from Turkey to NY, then worked for Alex, Toys R Us, Lego in Denmark and Hasbro in the UK, eventually started to work as a Play Futurist/ Consultant…. The journey of working for major Toy Companies gave me the tools of how to understand the mass-market, living in different countries

It taught me to understand different cultures and how play is re-defined. Working alongside non-toy companies made me realize how people are craving for playfulness in their daily and professional lives for creativity, making connections! And I started to get interested in understanding Play in its every definition, how it takes shape in new contexts and its power!

I fell in love with PLAY! It is like oxygen, crucial for survival, adaptation and eventually our evolution!


Your business has the strapline “play to innovate”. Why should companies be interested in this?

Play led approach is built on a body of research done about how techniques adopted from our playground engages people in an emotionally trustful way. It gives permission for the participants to remove the “normal” rules for a period of time. Reframing the challenges of change or innovation in a more playful way brings back the imagination and creative intelligence we had when we played. This helps uncover hidden barriers and identify new routes to change.


What can a leader do to foster an environment that values play when often it’s seen as childish?

Playful environments doesn’t need to be childish, playfulness means it needs to spark wonder, emotions, excitement, it needs to provide inspiration. This means a playful environment can be facilitated by providing, comfortable chairs, fresh color scheme, colourful post-its or markers, interesting books, maybe simple toys such as spinning tops, puzzles, board games for break, but the fundamental design element is to provide objects that sparks fun/playfulness in common areas.


As futurist, what are the future challenges and opportunities for companies that want to be innovative?

Biggest challenge and the opportunity is Creativity! We need creative and imaginative people for the future! Imagination will be able to take us beyond what is ahead of us and creativity will find ways to make these come true! Innovation can only come after these two skills are established, for that reason we need to have the courage and permission (for ourselves) to be freely creative!

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