As children, we play. Nobody has to compel us to play or tell us how. We just do. We make up the games we play, using our imaginations. It comes pretty naturally, for most people. We play as a childhood priority. If there is nothing else going on (perhaps especially if nothing else is going on), children will begin to play, using whatever is at hand. Clearly play has some evolutionary significance as an activity, or it wouldn’t be such an innate, instinctual thing. We clearly play for a reason, but what is it? Why do we play?
A second almost equally valid question is why adults tend to stop playing. Do we stop because we’re done, or because it’s conditioned out of us by society, or is that an evolutionary adaptation too? Would a return to play and being playful have any benefits to adults?
According to this study, “adults can positively utilise their inclination towards playfulness in many situations. They are good at observing, can easily see things from new perspectives, and can turn monotonous tasks into something interesting. At the same time, playfulness should not be equated with humor. Instead we need a new vocabulary to describe it, write psychologists.”
So let’s talk about why we play and what use it might be, for both children and adults. Perhaps, through play, we can recapture some of the many advantages of play in our daily lives by simply choosing to behave more playfully.
- Voluntary – You do it because you want to. Even if people tell you to go and play, you don’t have to and won’t, unless you feel inclined so to do. It’s impossible to force anybody to play. Compulsion is the surest guarantee of all play ending. You are the boss of you, where play is concerned.
- Intrinsically motivated – You play because it’s what you want to do. There is no requirement for extrinsic rewards. You don’t need applause or a monetary incentive. The profit motive is a very poor motivator of play. Play is not valued in the free market and you don’t choose what to play based on pricing signals. Although professional sports people play for money, the best one’s do it for love, whether or not they get paid. Money alone won’t guarantee great play takes place.
- Recreational – The essence of recreation is that it allows you to recreate yourself, mending the wear and tear and renewing yourself. Play is an excellent means of rebuilding your tired mind and body.
- Pleasurable – We play because it gives us pleasure. We like to play. We like how it makes us feel. It’s happy-making.
- Enjoyable – Because we feel good, when we play, we enjoy the experience. It’s satisfying. It gives us a sense of closure, if that’s how we choose to end the game we play. It can equally keep us in suspense. We choose, according to our whims.
- A means of developing and using your curiosity – If you want to get better at using your natural curiosity, play is a way to do so. Curiosity is useful in playing and playing can make you experience heightened curiosity. There are more questions to answer, because you are playing. Things occur to you, in that relaxed and pleasurable state and you feel inclined to pursue those thoughts. Playing is often about wondering why and exercising “what if” scenarios.
- A way of learning – People learn in lots of different ways, but play has the advantage of being hands-on and highly visual, spatial and interactive. As a way of learning, playing with things is powerful. Messing about and bumping into things, with purpose, is a great way to explore the terrain of possibilities. Because your mind is in a relaxed and pleasured state, it’s more amenable to uploading information without friction. You also make better associations between information, emotional states and visual stimulus. Play is a great way to learn things.
- Observational – Playing amplifies your senses. You need to observe well to play well. Learning to observe is the first step to learning how to think critically. It helps you miss less. Your ignorance is ameliorated, because play teaches you how to pay more attention to your situation. Situational awareness is an asset. The more you notice, the better questions you can ask about why things are as they are and consequently, the more fruitful will be your solutions for shaping the world in better ways than how they are now.
- A way to gain and explore new perspectives – In play, new perspectives present themselves. There they are. You either pay attention and explore them, or you cease playing. Often, the only way forward, in a game, is to see things from a different perspective and solve the intractable in that way. The first time I drew anything upside down, I was lying down under the living room coffee table, scribbling on the under-side of the table top above me. Who uses a table from beneath it? I felt transported to another place and time. I loved that feeling.
- Imaginative – If it doesn’t exist, you have to pretend. Pretending is one of our earliest games. We learn to imagine things as other than being what they normally are, in order to play with them. Thus, a useless stick becomes a medieval sword. A cubby house becomes a moon base. You have to draw on your imagination to turn the mundane and prosaic into magical playthings. You even have to imagine the magic.
- Experimental – It might seem like just messing around with stuff, by play can also be an experimental method of discovery. Seeing how to do things by trying them is the essence of the experimental method. There is an element of having a go and just seeing what happens, involved in play. If things don’t work out the way you expect, you try something else. Play is all about trying out the various possibilities.
- A good use of your hands – Much of our nervous system is devoted to control of the fine motor skills that govern our hands. In playing with things, we usually pick them up and manipulate them. We get to use our fine motor skills and develop new ones, strengthening the neural connections that go toward muscle memory. Musicians play instruments and to succeed, they develop dexterity and flexibility beyond what would normally be required for survival. Playing is an excellent way to improve your motor skills and finely co-ordinated hand movements.
- Engaging of your senses – Through play, we can stimulate our sight, our hearing, our voices, our sense of touch and of taste, as well as other kinaesthetic senses. We can experience new sensations simply by playing the right way. During play, we can experience the world in ways that are ordinarily not available to us. Through playing, we can heighten our experience of our sensations, paying special attention to how we perceive and feel, during our play time. Playfulness can help you learn to feel more acutely. It also sharpens our reactions and responses.
- Fearless, daring, courageous and uninhibited – When you play, the furthest thought from your mind is whether or not you will fail or what the consequences of failure might be. In the moment, you simply don’t care. This allows you to be fearless and daring, uninhibited by the fear of failure or the embarrassment of coming up wanting. While you play, you are a god-like creature with super powers. Nothing will stop you.
- Not judgemental – When you watch children play, they almost never sit in judgement of their game or ho well they played it, preferring instead to simply enjoy the time spent playing. Nobody cares whether your playtime is optimally productive or efficient. That’s not why you play. You play to have fun, not to weigh up the pros and cons of what you are doing. It’s just a game, after all. This is not a bad approach to life, in general.
- Immersive – Have you ever noticed how, when you’re playing, everything else about the world and your life recedes and you find yourself fully absorbed in your play time. You are completely and totally immersed in the world you may have created, as part of your play. All your cares and worries are momentarily irrelevant and cast from your mind. You inner critic is silent. You are at one with your task and completely involved, using your whole mind and body.
- Strategic thinking made fun – Often, while playing, we have to devise and revise strategies on the fly, without the benefit of thinking time or deep introspection. Our strategies lead us to succeed in our game, if they’re good enough. Being made to think strategically, without necessarily being aware that we are, is a useful life skill to develop. We can use our strategic abilities in many spheres of our lives, so learning to do it, while enjoying the lessons, though play, is very useful.
- A route to achieving focus and flow – One of the most sure-fire ways to find your focus and get in the flow is to start to play. In fact, if you can approach your daily tasks with a playful attitude, you’ll find procrastination falls away. Taking yourself and your goals too seriously can lead to paralysis, whereas treating both like a game, which you like to play, can turn even the most challenging tasks into something approaching fun. Certainly the concept of viewing daunting tasks as a game to play is amusing in itself. Play is a way to turn what you have to do into what you get to do.
- Revealing – Play shows you how things really work. It’s only by messing with stuff, taking it apart and putting it back together again that you gain deeper insight into how mysterious mechanisms function. All young engineers know this. If you want to learn to design something, take a few examples apart and study how they tick. Playfulness is next to analytical, in this case. Finding new ways to reassemble things, so that they function in ways not originally envisioned is another good game. Using them in ways other than their maker intended is also another fun game to play.
- Exciting – Let’s face it. Playing is exciting. Your pupils dilate a little and your heart rate races slightly. You might even break into a sweat. Playing makes you alert and the more you play, the more you want to play. Compared to the ennui of everyday existence, the opportunity to play is something children welcome with open arms. It’s a chance to burn off excess energy, if you’re a child, or to discover latent energy you didn’t know you had, if an adult.
- Stimulating and arousing – There are biophysical changes that occur, when you play. When playing with an intimate partner, this can include psycho-sexual aspects, arousal and deep emotional and physical awakenings. Even plain old vanilla playing can still get the body into a state of anticipation and expectation, changing the makeup of your body chemistry. Who knows? It might even reduce inflammation and rejuvenate your cells – I don’t know. Somebody qualified should study this. Playing can be a little like exercise, especially if it is vigorous. You move your body and think harder, burning more calories. Playing a musical instrument is definitely a physical act that makes you sweat and use muscles normally left dormant. Dancing is similar.
- Life-affirming – There are few comparable ways of feeling alive and connected to the universe than you can feel while you play. This can give you a feeling of being glad to be present in the moment. Play is something we share with many other living things. The ability to play and to enjoy it is testament to a deep justice present somewhere in the cosmos.
- Free-spirited – Play allows you to let your spirit do as it will, seeking nothing more than the gratification that spending a part of your life time engaged in a pleasurable activity can give you. There are no external constraints necessary and self-censorship is also not required. Here is an opportunity to be who you are, however you are, without censure. Grasp it.
- Vulnerable – When you play, your guard is down. You aren’t worried about imminent attacks by predators. You are more concerned with playing. This is the ultimate state of vulnerability, where you are free to exist in your natural state, untroubled by threats. Being able to feel as if there are no threats and opening yourself to others, as a vulnerable human being, is a privilege that not many other scenarios provide, in life. Anxiety is temporarily suspended. Peace and calm enter your consciousness as you immerse yourself deeper and deeper into your play time.
- Both collaborative and solitary – I’ve always thought that all creativity is a subtle blend of things you come up with in solitude, on your own, and the efforts of teams of people who take your idea and enhance it with ideas of their own. Playing is similar. Some games are positively solipsistic. Others are more like cat-herding. Collaborative games require the development of giving and taking skills and playing in teams, this way, can be deeply satisfying. My favourite aspect of this dichotomy is that it simply brings to the fore the fact that a balance is required. Sometimes you have to fly solo. Other times, it’s no fun unless others take part.
- Cooperative and trusting – Cooperative play stops as soon as anybody playing stops cooperating. This is an important life lesson to learn. Cooperation is delicate and subtle and it can be all that sustains the fun of play. In order to cooperate effectively, you have to learn to trust other people and for them to be able to trust you. Everyone has to do their part, or the play is unsatisfactory. This is why bands are such good fun. Being in one relies on you trusting each other musician to play along. You also have to do what you’re supposed to do, or the song isn’t served.
- Improvisational and spontaneous – The vast majority of our play is not pre-meditated or scripted. It evolves and develops spontaneously, as new ideas occur to us and new questions arise to provoke our curiosity. You have to think on your feet, inventively and improvise your play with whatever you have. Look back over history and you can find artefacts of play things made of the most unlikely materials, but they were pressed into the service of the game, nevertheless. To improvise, you have to think quickly, flexibly and creatively. Play encourages you to do all three.
- Self-directed and autonomous – It’s possible to play quite well without the explicit compulsion of the authorities or a government and their latent threats of violence unless you comply and obey. You have free will and you can exercise it, to create and play whatever you choose, whenever you wish. There is no ministry of play directing how and when you may play and you don’t need anybody else’s permission to decide to play. Isn’t it strange that we don’t think we can maintain civilisation without authoritarian leaders and their dictatorial institutions? If that were true, how on earth would we ever play?
- Unconstrained and unlimited – Because play is fundamentally imaginative, there is no limit to the things we can imagine and pretend. There are no limits. If you can think of it, you can play with it. Ideas are excellent play things, as are fictitious scenarios and universes that exist only as ideas in your head. You can travel anywhere in your imagined universe at infinite speed, or go backwards and forwards in time, if that is your wish. Play is a place where literally anything is possible.
- A taste of freedom – With nobody to tell you want to do and no boundaries, playing in an environment where you can shape your play time to be any kind of universe you can imagine is the closest our minds get to exercising the feeling of genuine freedom. There are no obligations, bills to pay or schedules to adhere to, if that’s how you choose to play. Being able to exist in this state of absolute freedom is perhaps the only time in our mortal existence that this is possible.
- Outside of ordinary routine – Routine is mundane and monotonous, but so much of what we do, in our lives, can be categorised as routine and ordinary. Play, in contrast, can be different every time. It can be extraordinary and nothing like routine. The spontaneity of playing is a very effective antidote to feeling like you are stuck in a rut, with no way to break it.
- Innovative and inventive – Because you make it all up as you go along, while you play, you don’t need to be an expert at anything and you can invent at the speed of thought. New ideas make the play a lot more fun and certainly more fascinating. If you need to strengthen you ability to invent and innovate, play is an effective way to get these parts of your mind working well. There’s nothing at stake, other than the fun of thinking things up.
- Interactive – Play takes on a life of its own. As you create the game you are playing, or explore the space of possibilities, you effectively interact with your own game play, which in turn prompts new ideas, thoughts and curiosities to pursue. As you follow those leads, the nature of your play changes in response. We are both shaping what we play and it shapes us. This is the essence of interactivity.
- Creative – You can make your own rules, fashion your very own playthings, play with ideas that nobody else is thinking, design your play environment and generally arrange your play time universe in any way you see fit. It doesn’t have to be anything like anybody else’s and typically isn’t. Making and playing are closely allied activities and the more creativity you can apply, the more satisfying are the results. Creativity, unlike in other parts of your life perhaps, is an unarguable asset in play.
- An antidote to boredom, anxiety, stress, trauma and rejection – All of these things, if they afflict can make it next to impossible to create. You may have the desire to be creative, but lack the will, due to feelings like these. A trick you can play on yourself is to convince yourself you aren’t creating a damn thing – instead you’re merely playing. Creative people invariably find that as soon as they start to play with their medium and materials, they actually start to create, whether they intended to or not. Play kickstarts creativity and in so doing, alleviates those feelings of boredom, anxiety, stress, trauma and rejection. And as you playfully create, you make something tangible that you and others can admire or use. Immediately, you begin to feel better and better about yourself. The self-recriminations at the lack of your application evaporate. All because you began to play.
- Productive – Even things you love to do can become a chore, if you have to do them productively. Sometimes, you’re not into it, you’re exhausted, or you just can’t stand the repetition. When this happens, making your chore into a game to play can make the task seem like fun, restoring your productivity. There are few better ways of facing down a mountain of work to do than to execute in small steps, playing with it as you do. Dance with the challenge and it will yield.
- Rejuvenating – Want to feel younger, or reminisce nostalgically about a time when things seemed simpler and less-complicated? Want to travel back to the days when you were happiest and carefree, when you could spend all your time doing what you loved most? There’s an easy way to do it. Play!
- Healing and soothing – Play undoubtedly has a way of taking your mind off your troubles. It removes you from your present situation and places you in an imaginary play space. In your mind, you might not even be in the present. You may well be imagining yourself in a distant universe. This ability to remove yourself from your turbulent difficulties is what makes play so calming, healing and soothing. If you hurt somewhere, then taking the pressure off the point that hurts can be just the remedy. Play alleviates the pressure.
- An escape – Every now and then, we all need to escape our situation. We might be struggling with no respite, the cards may not be falling the way we would like, for us, or we may be in an impossible situation. Staying for the battle may be so fatiguing that you lose your stamina and ability to cope. Play is somewhere to hide, when it’s all too much. Make time to enjoy your life, do what you like to do and recharge your batteries and you may find that your life is much more bearable and your resources to cope with challenges greatly expanded. Play has some wonderful medicinal properties.
- A way to take heart, when you feel heartache or heartbreak – You wouldn’t be human, unless you had experienced heartache or heartbreak (or both). These are both very bad feelings that can and do inflict significant damage on your mind and body. They hurt. They can hurt you physically. Play, on the other hand, gives you a chance to be included, accepted and successful. You might be drawing the short straw in life, but in your play life, it’s possible to be a winner, or a very good loser. Losses, while playing, are as ephemeral and temporary as you wins. They don’t really matter. This property of play can give you heart, when your heart is not in it.
- Lots of fun – Let’s face it. The main reason we play is that it’s fun to play. We can always create more fun, too, when the fun runs out. In fact, play is a fountain of fun that never runs dry. Who doesn’t like having fun? Even the most curmudgeonly among us would have to admit that levity and enjoying your play time are both worthwhile.
- REWARDING! – This is the bottom line, actually. We play because it’s rewarding – in myriad ways. You always get more out of it than you put in. It’s like the universe’s ultimate gift. The more you play, the better you feel and the more you know. There are so few downsides to play, that it’s a wonder it is ever frowned upon by anybody at any time. Perhaps their real issue is jealousy at not being able to enjoy the rewards of play themselves. It remains a mystery to me why we have come to regard play as frivolous and childish, when it’s such a humanity-enhancing activity. If people would only play, instead of waging wars and applying gratuitous violence to their every situation, we’d be a happier, saner, more enlightened species.
Playing is serious stuff. I love playful people.