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We know how important it is for kids to play. They learn, they make friends, they let off steam. Is it surprising, then, that play is still important for us as we become adults?
When we play, we allow ourselves to set down our worries, to take a break from the responsibility. We rest that part of our mind that is always striving for more and better.
The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression.Brian Sutton-Smith, The Ambiguity of Play (book)
Why should we play?
We understand that play is important for kids. Stuart Brown is a researcher who has studied play – and has a TED Talk on playing (in addition to a book and research articles). Without play, kids can’t develop normally. Even for adults, he puts the importance of play right up there with sleep (and we know how important sleep is, right?)
In practical survival terms, the fact that we continue to play as adults makes us humans very adaptable. This is a distinct advantage in the survival of our species throughout the millennia. It’s also a distinct advantage for each of us through our lives. It helps us cope with difficult situations. We can solve problems better.
Play also allows us to connect with others. When you see that someone else just wants to play, you feel a sense of trust towards them. When you play you feel joy, you become less stressed.1
What is play?
We know play when we see it, but what is it, really? Researchers and philosophers have tried to answer that question. The National Institute for Play has a link to this Scholarpedia definition of play which gives us the 5 most commonly described aspects of play.
- Play is something that you want to do.
- Play is something that you do for its own sake.
- Play is structured, has rules, but there’s some wiggle room.
- Play is based in imagination.
- Play is active but not stressful.
Play is something that you want to do.
If you are forced to do it or feel obligated to do it, it is not play. If you’re playing with others, someone might be the leader, and you may all be playing. That’s still play. Everyone has to agree to the rules. Or if you don’t like it you could quit.
This is why those work “fun” events are not actually fun most of the time. You feel like you have to do it. It’s not play. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be fun and play but it’s going to have to be pretty awesome.
Play is something you do for its own sake.
Play is purposeless. There are no outcome goals in play. When you’re playing you do it just because it’s fun. You goof off.
Doodling is playing but drawing a diagram to communicate an idea is not. In the first example, it’s the act of moving the pen across the page and seeing ink flow on the page. You’re not trying to create a great masterpiece. In the second example, you’re putting ink on the page to express an idea.
Play is structured, has rules, but there’s some wiggle room.
If your play is art, the rule is that you must create something. If you are rough-housing, you hold back enough to not actually injure the other person. And obviously, playing sports has very explicit rules. But if you’re playing soccer in the backyard and realize that the goal posts are too big to be fun, you can change them up. Or if you’re drawing with pen, you might decide part way through to pick up a marker and add that in.
The opposite of this is when the rules are very strict, completely explicit, and not changeable. Here’s an example to make it super clear. Even if you love to write, an assignment to write a 5000-word essay on the history of your town that must be cited using APA rules, typed in 12 point Times New Roman and handed in on December 15 – that’s not play. Doesn’t mean that you won’t enjoy parts of it, especially if you’re a research or history buff. But when you’re doing the assignment, you’re not playing.
Play is based in imagination.
Kids play house. The points in a sport are imagined. The art you create is a representation of something, like a flower, not a real one.
Play is not real life. Even though play is acted out in real ways. You create a world in play that is different from real life in some way. The boundaries and rules might be made up on the spot and as you go – imagining and creating a new game.
This also ties into the act of story-telling. We tell stories all the time. We tell our friends about something that happened at work. We tell ourselves a story about what it meant when our friend didn’t text us back.
We, especially as kids, told wildly imaginative stories all the time. We get away from that one though unless we start writing them down and actively telling the stories (those people are called fiction authors).
Play is active but not stressful.
During play, you feel awake and alert, but you don’t feel stressed out. You laugh, you smile, you have fun. You might be trying to play “well”, but you know there are no consequences of not playing well. If your art piece doesn’t turn out the way you want to, you can re-do it. If you lose the backyard soccer game, well your buddies won.
This is also why “playing” sports professionally isn’t actually play. There could be serious professional consequences to not performing well in a game.
How can I play more?
What’s fun for other people may not be fun for youGretchen Rubin
We play because it’s fun, but what I consider playing may not look anything like playing to you.
Stuart Brown suggests we all do an exercise in looking back on our own “play history”. Think of your most playful and joyful experiences in your life. Don’t limit your memories to your adult life, think back to when you were a young child. How did you play?
The next step is to bring that sense of play, joy, and wonder into your life. How can you infuse your life now with play? Stuart Brown says this will empower you and enrich your life.
That’s a big promise – That you’ll be empowered when you play. Yet it makes sense. The mere fact of having more joy, more play, and less stress, is enough. And you’ll get to know yourself better. Knowing yourself is one of the best ways to empower yourself. When you are empowered, you make decisions and are more active in your own life. AND you make the lives of those around you better.
Play is a form of active rest. It energises us, and gives us a break. It is just as important as sleep, and is a key part of the good life.
So let’s all make play a priority in our lives. Chime in below: How do you play now, as an adult? How did you play when you were a kid? How can you be more playful in your life?
You are reading this because you are interested in improving your life. That means we have something in common. I’m still working on what the Foundations for the Good Life is all about, and I’d love for you to join me in this journey. I’d love to build a community with you. With people who are trying to figure out what “the good life” means, and how to set up their life to make it possible for them.
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