- Associated Press - Saturday, October 31, 2015

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) - Last spring, University of Delaware alumna Michelle Joni Lapidos reintroduced recess to Brooklyn hipsters.

A group of 10, including an attorney, health coach and nonprofit manager, gathered in Lapidos’ Park Slope apartment to squish vegan Play-Doh, speak with funny accents, finger-paint rainbows and “shake their sillies out.”

Lapidos, 30, called her month-long workshop “Preschool Mastermind,” and the idea was a winner.

A fashion merchandising major, who studied early childhood development for a time, she wanted adults to rediscover the wonder of living completely fearless in the moment, to feel empowered to create their own “personal fairytale to make the world shine brighter.”

The price: A sliding scale of $333 to $999.

“I’m a catalyst to help people find their magic,” says the daughter of a Beatles groupie-turned-businessman. “I give people confidence and give people permission to follow their dreams and to explore possibilities.”

Pay to play? Companies are taking notice.

Gone are the extravagant holiday parties that require you to get dressed up, hire a babysitter and hold your liquor. That’s mandated, structured fun, and millennials want no part of it, according to Nat Measley, CEO of The Fun Dept. in Wilmington.

“Typical team building is pretty typical,” says Measley, 32. “It’s long and boring and not fun.”

Instead, Measley’s consulting firm recommends 15-minute spurts of fun throughout the work day, such as a wackiest sock contest, to boost morale, efficiency and employee retention.

Noting a “fun deficit in America,” Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton endorsed the concept earlier this year when she trumpeted camps for adults.

One area nonprofit, which Measley declined to name, splits employees into two groups and has them walk around the building in opposite directions. When they meet, they give one another high-fives. Employees bring boomboxes and curated playlists.

Another option: Office chair curling, a spin-off of the cultish Olympic sport. Employees assemble in a break room and see who can roll the office chair the farthest. (The chair is empty, because of liability issues).

It may sound cheesy, but companies like Google and Zappos have perfected the corporate culture of fun with air hockey and jelly bean bars. The Fun Dept.’s most popular package costs nearly $2,000 a month, including custom fun workshops for managers to find out whether their employees would prefer paintball or puzzles.

After a decade in business, The Fun Dept. works with more than 100 clients a year, including Comcast, JPMorgan Chase, W.L. Gore and Associates, DuPont, Johnson & Johnson, Capital One and Measley’s alma mater, the University of Delaware.

The goal isn’t exactly to discover your inner child, Measley says. After all, not everyone had a rosy childhood. Some of us even got picked last for the dodgeball team (sniff, sniff).

Rather, companies want to tap into childlike imagination to encourage innovation and enthusiasm at the office. Reintroducing childhood rituals to adults can change perspectives, harness creativity and allow for deeper insights, according to researchers at the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania.

That translates into higher company profits, says Measley, who studied sports entertainment and organizational leadership at UD. Recently, his company released the book “Playing It Forward,” a how-to model for creating a “winning workplace culture.”

Want more proof? Lapidos certainly found a lucrative niche in nap time and chocolate milk.

A free spirit, she has been captured on camera wearing a fishnet onesie at a monastery and singing “Dream Lover” while licking a jar of Nutella.

To schedule an interview with her, reporters are instructed to contact her “Wizard.”

Before starting Preschool Mastermind with a blogger friend, who has her master’s in teaching, Lapidos ran a skipping club through Manhattan. For $20 each, participants dressed up in feather boas, neon glasses and leopard-print stockings and skipped around Madison Square Park to Steve Miller’s “Fly Like An Eagle.”

Previously, the founder of UDress Magazine interned at major fashion magazines and reviewed spa treatments for Spa Week. In 2009, she started a blog in which she interviewed local celebrities about their favorite New York haunts. That morphed into another blog, “Before and Afro,” in which she wore a giant fake afro to help understand people’s perceptions.

Lapidos’ other claim to fame is a brief appearance in the 2001 film “Wet Hot American Summer,” which became a Netflix series.

With her ombre red hair and armpits to match and a devil-may-care attitude that rivals actress Lena Dunham, Lapidos has encountered media derision for her infectious positivity.

Gawker snarkily suggested erecting a bronze statue of her, while Jezebel called her a “manic pixie.”

“People take what I do and invent their own perception of it,” Lapidos responds, diplomatically.

These days, she’s meditating and brainstorming at a 188-acre farm outside the city called Arc 38 (Autonomous Resilient Community or Activist Retreat Center). The philosophy is a combination of Occupy Wall Street and Burning Man, she writes on her website, MichelleJoni.com.

Next summer, Lapidos plans to relocate preschool and the macaroni necklaces to the farm. An online course is in development.

Measley, who admits to thoroughly enjoying preschool as a kid, says Lapidos’ model might not work for every workplace. He cautions companies not to rely on fun to compensate for poor working conditions.

“If you’re not paying people enough in their benefits and salary, don’t think fun is going to be the white horse to ride in and save the day.”

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Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., https://www.delawareonline.com

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