Forever blowing bubbles

A project to help put a smile on the face of children in war-torn countries has some powerful lessons for event planners...

a group of children playing with soap bubbles

Photo by eleonora on Unsplash

Photo by eleonora on Unsplash

"Play is considered a pastime for children, but it’s important for adults too. Play can aid imagination, stress management and productivity. Something as simple as a pot of bubbles in a meeting room, can break down barriers and enhance the value of connections", explains Samantha Holdsworth, CEO and founder of Clowns Without Borders UK. Holly Patrick caught up with her to find out more.

Let’s start with how Clowns Without Border came about and the work it does…

The organisation was formed during the Bosnian War and it was essentially invented by children, because no adult would ever say, ‘I’ve got this really great idea: let's send clowns into active conflict zones.’

The United Nations (UN) created a pen-pal scheme with children in Spain writing to children in refugee camps. The Spanish children asked their pen-pals in refugee camps what they missed most about normal life, they said ‘going to their friend’s parties and having fun.’ The Spanish children fundraised to send a professional performer called Tortell Poltrona to this refugee camp in Bosnia. He did a show and 700 people came. He did another and 1,000 people showed up. The UN saw the joy these shows were bringing to the refugees and asked Tortell to continue his shows. He and a bunch of other clowns and artists toured for the following year, on and off, with the army across different refugee camps. And that’s where Clowns Without Borders was born.

I trained in the arts, theatre, and clowning. I had heard about Clowns Without Borders and decided to get in touch with them. They asked me to start a UK Chapter of the organisation and I thought, ‘Yeah, why not? How hard can it be.’ It’s quite hard.

I went along on a tour to make sure I fully understood the organisation. My first show was in the Philippines after typhoon Haiyan had hit the country. It was one of the most powerful ever recorded.

The simple pleasures of humanity dictate, that alongside necessities such as food, water, and shelter; play and laughter are really important. And in disaster zones, those needs are quickly accelerated for children. It’s our job to provide that for them.

Why is play important for healthy wellbeing?

We must consider the impact of shared positive experiences and how these create and strengthen ties, bonds, and connections. In a professional setting, we don’t think of silliness as productive but often, silliness is joy and laughter.

Joy and laughter release endorphins and serotonin, two happy chemicals that create neurological pathways that help build a sense of belonging and foster connection. When people don’t feel connected to their workplace, they leave.

Laughter is free but rehiring and training can be expensive.

As adults, especially in a professional setting, we’re not very good at playing and having fun, why do you think this is?

It starts with showing up for yourself more authentically, being true to yourself through your thoughts, words, and actions, and without the tyranny of perfectionism.

We all want to be efficient and effective. We also want to build deep trusting connections with the people that we work with or the people that we are inviting into our space, because that's how we can fully be ourselves and fully thrive.

Sometimes workplaces diminish our sense of self and we feel we have to perform in a certain way to get ourselves taken seriously.

Sam gave a talk at The Meetings Show 2023 about the importance of play and failure.

Sam gave a talk at The Meetings Show 2023 about the importance of play and failure.

How do you get people to engage with their authentic selves?

The quickest way I've ever found to engage people in a professional setting is to give them a little pot of bubbles.

The minute you start blowing bubbles, two things happen. First, there’s silence because people don’t know what to do, and then as one person starts blowing bubbles, everyone starts doing it.

Second comes the laughter and then people start chatting.

Bubbles symbolise a shared connection. They allow us to be someone else other than the serious professional, they allow us to be a little bit playful. It gives us permission to be childlike and connect as people, not as professionals.

When you build in this moment for connection outside of work tasks, that’s when organisations will really flourish.

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So, do we need to give ourselves a break from time to time?

We are allowed to be imperfect humans. There’s this idea that we must come up with the right answer all the time, and that's just not possible. If we acknowledge each other's fallibilities and vulnerabilities, we will be much more able to share ideas, thoughts, and opportunities, that may or may not go anywhere. That’s still a rich base to work from rather than ‘I've got to be seen to be clever, good, effective and bright’, which shuts down that openness that play provides.

When you say ‘play’ most people think of ‘teambuilding’ or begrudgingly revealing an ‘interesting fact about themselves’. How can adult play be done well?

Playfulness is sometimes managed badly so it presents as forced fun. It shuts down connections, it shuts down any kind of vulnerability because participants are like, ‘I'm just doing what you're telling me to do’.

Playfulness is about assessing what will make your team or your delegates feel more at ease and more connected with each other. That takes adapting and addressing what’s happening in the room. It could be as simple as bubbles or drawing out what you had for breakfast and talking about it.

What’s a playful exercise that always engages people?

Bubbles is one. Another is something called ‘Sticky values’ and it’s very simple.

On a Post-It Note, you write down something you really appreciate about that person, and then you give it to them or stick it on their desk. I’ve found that people are genuinely moved because in 2023 there are shockingly few opportunities to tell someone why you appreciate them. This exercise makes people feel seen.

When we're reaching epidemic proportions of burnout, quiet quitting and en masse levels of resignation, and the bosses are still saying ‘Come on guys, we need you to be more efficient’, we’ve lost a certain level of compassion.

How can you implement these activities in the workplace or at events?

It starts with what you can control, finding those micro-moments where you bring a little bit of fun, a little bit of lightness into the setting. It could be Sticky Values, it could be a pot of bubbles in the office kitchen or a few pots on the show floor.

It’s also about asking ‘How can we make this more fun?’ It’s a small thing to say, but a massive thing to do.