Have you ever spent time watching children play—or animals, puppies, or kittens? What did you see? Spontaneity, curiosity, joyfulness? Did you have feelings of timelessness, purposelessness, or freedom? Did it summon memories from your own childhood? Do you wish you could be that playful child again? The truth is, adults need to play just as children do. Scientists have studied playing and determined that it is part of our biology.
Yet, in contemporary society, play is perceived as unproductive and time wasting. Once we reach adulthood it’s time to get serious. Besides, our personal and professional responsibilities leave us little time for play. Even children and teenagers are booked solid with after-school activities, many of an intense or competitive nature. All of these factor in to the lack of play in our lives. Then there is our addiction to technology that has become all consuming for all ages. Concurrently, obesity, stress, and anxiety have reached epidemic proportions.
Stuart Brown, MD, co-author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, compares play to oxygen, “…it’s all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing.” Dr. Brown is founder of the National Institute for Play and has spent decades studying the power of play in a wide spectrum of people from prisoners to businesspeople to artists to Nobel Prize recipients. His data suggest that lack of unstructured, imaginative play can prevent children from growing into happy, well-adjusted adults. Play is crucial for social, emotional, and cognitive development, and it makes us better adjusted, smarter, and less stressed.
Back in 1966, in Brown’s first pilot study, he interviewed 26 convicted murderers and discovered that most of the killers had two things in common: they were from abusive families, and they never played as kids. Overall, his years of research have revealed that even if play was present in childhood, an absence of play in adulthood can cause rigidity, depression, lack of adaptability, and difficulty coping with the many demands of the world.
What is play?
While there are many definitions of play, Brown’s emphasis is on anything that is done spontaneously for its own sake. This includes activities that produce a sense of timelessness, apparent purposelessness, pleasure, and joy. Play is a state of being that can take you into what many call the “zone” where you lose your sense of self. Before I started writing this paragraph I stopped to get a glass of water and noticed the plants on my balcony were thirsty. The purposeful act of nourishing my flowers lured me to drift into a timeless, playful, seemingly purposeless state of being as I became lost in nurturing. Following this interlude, I felt utterly refreshed and inspired to continue writing!
The key to purposeless play is that it should be guilt-free! This can be a real challenge for highly productive adults who feel they should be taking care of business. Play tends to be considered trivial, what you do once you’ve met your responsibilities. Yet, taking time for play contributes to better problem-solving and creativity, and can actually help you re-energize and be more productive.
In his classic book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes about a state of consciousness bordering on ecstasy that he calls flow. He has studied people from all strata of society and his subjects range from CEOs and concert pianists to monks and shepherds. They are typically engaged in purposeful high-skill work activities, playing intense games or pursuing hobbies, or helping others. During this spontaneous flow state, people feel completely absorbed in what they are doing and have a sense of deep joy.
Play and flow have in common a sense of timelessness, spontaneity, and total absorption. Watching old videos of Michael Jordan zoning through his championship games, leaping through moves he’d never done before, one sees a master totally absorbed in his craft.
For all of us, integrating intervals of lighthearted play into our daily lives may help us prepare for the important activities where we engage our best selves.
Play is highly individual and can take many forms. It may be knitting or reading or engaging in a good conversation or listening to music. Play may be joking or clowning, doodling, or slipping off in a daydream. It can be engaging in social or physical games.
Play and relationships
Brown suggests that the rough-and-tumble play of children, especially boys, develops empathy, trust, and cooperation, and can actually prevent violent behavior. “Helicopter parents” hovering over their children trying to prevent injury can prevent spontaneity, which is important for a child’s creative development. Play for all ages can lighten us up and help us be more flexible and adaptable to the changing world around us.
Lighthearted playful activities with your loved ones can add a healthy dimension to your relationships. Laughter and play help keep relationships fresh and exciting—and can help heal resentments, disagreements, and hurts. It’s never too late to bring playfulness into your life. Having children (the experts at play) gives you a second chance to play again or enjoy something you missed as a child. Being a grandparent provides yet another opportunity.
Retirees Linda and Joe intersperse playful activities to enliven their relationship. They make up playful words during the day and incorporate fun into their meal preparation. Instead of taking a vacation, they decided to take a “stay-cation” and decorate their back yard with lots of flowers and furniture to share with family and friends.
Learn from play
Animals have been studied in the wild engaging in play. Some have been observed as providing help to less able animals so they all can continue to play. Some animals play when they are young, such as wolves, and then take on the seriousness of their alpha role as a predator and pack animal in adulthood. A Labrador retriever plays throughout its life!
Observing how kids play, or reflecting on your own childhood play, can reveal a great deal about temperament, innate desires, talents, and character. Couple this with reflecting on how you play as an adult—are you a Labrador or a wolf? If you are in the midst of a life transition, for example, and contemplating your life purpose, passions, and talents, you might take a “play history.” Reflect back to your earliest memories of what gave you joy and what was natural for you. In what sort of activities did you engage? Did you enjoy those activities by yourself, or with others, or both? Is there something from that early play that you long for? Perhaps an essence of this activity can be adapted into your life today.
Uncover your “play-nature”
Activities that incorporate movement, being in nature, and relationships with others bring out my playful side. My early background in dance led me to develop movement workshops to help people access their playful nature. I engage in Argentine tango to enliven my spirit and connect with others. I like to take mini-breaks to just move in my body. Research has shown that rhythm and movement can be a highly beneficial way to access playfulness.
Give yourself permission to play—at work, at home, in your community. Experiment and try new things. Join with others or do things alone. Uncover your play-nature and discover what a difference it makes in your life.