How Do You Play?

Is it purposeless, spontaneous, an antidote to boredom or loneliness? Does it involve risk, excitement, pleasure or freedom? If so, you play like a child — and that’s good news.

Childhood play has recently become a target of our attempts to help kids be more physically active, but children themselves have a very different idea of what constitutes play. And their perspective could help us help ourselves as well as them.

IMGIn a child’s view, playing has no goal. It is the ultimate in present moment awareness – there is no desired end result – it is an end in itself. That’s one of the take-aways from a new study conducted at the University of Montreal. Other important findings are that risk-taking is pleasurable for children, helping them learn how to cope with life’s unpredictability; that play doesn’t necessarily have to be active; and that they feel ambiguous about scheduled play activities. For both kids and adults, this is a reminder that the social and emotional benefits of play are every bit as important as the physical benefits.

According to Stuart Brown of the National Institute of Play, being playful helps us be more adaptable, leads to trust and benefits brain development. He has studied the rough-and-tumble play of animals, as well as babies’ early play with their mothers. Play is driven by curiosity about the world and each other, and social play is often the glue that holds us together. Brown says that “The opposite of play isn’t work — it’s depression.”

Play can help us be more creative. John Cleese recommends using humor to enhance creativity, because it makes us more playful and relaxed. Brown says that play is a mediator between the brain and the hand. He has observed that design students who can’t creatively solve problems haven’t worked with their hands enough, doing things like playing and tinkering.

In order to “infuse” your life with more play, Brown recommends spending time with children, surrounding yourself with playful people, and looking back at your “play history“. What kinds of play did you enjoy as a child? Can you make an emotional connection between your childhood play and your life now? What is the story you tell about playing?

When I was a child, much of my play was unstructured. I grew up in a big family, and there was always someone around to play with. Because I didn’t have any brothers, our play often involved dress-up and make-believe rather than physical play. We had a music box that played the wedding march, and we would take turns putting on a bridal “veil” and playing wedding. We would take our large collection of “Little Golden” books and make paths around our bedroom with them, or build a fort or tent with a blanket thrown over a clothesline or picnic table. I also enjoyed solitary activities like reading, paint-by-number and crocheting. Our physical needs were satisfied with bike riding and occasional games of softball with the boys next door.

I’m still a fan of make-believe in my preference for dramas and fiction, and my dislike of reality TV. My exercise most often comes in the form of activities I do by myself (running, biking) rather than “team” sports, since I had little of that during childhood. But I try to keep myself open to ways of playing that I’m less comfortable with — partner yoga with my husband expanded my ability to trust; snorkeling and stand-up paddle boarding have helped me enjoy playing in the water; taking more opportunities to laugh and be less serious about life has helped me relax.image

Play is whatever feels like fun and freedom to you: sports, games, puzzles, playing with a pet, laughing at a movie, acting in a play. Play is what makes you feel like your child self again. As George Bernard Shaw said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

Daydream believing

My daydreams aren’t what they used to be. I’m pretty sure that’s a good thing, though. It all depends on what we mean by daydream.

Type “daydream” into Google, and this pops up: “Pleasant thoughts that distract one’s attention from the present.” That’s the way I mostly daydreamed for many years. I would use my daydreams as a tool for imagining some future event – usually something that was definitely going to happen, like a vacation. Fantasizing about the future event got me out of the mundane day-to-day life and into something happy and pleasant. After all, who doesn’t like to think about vacation?

But I realized recently that I don’t daydream like that much anymore. I think it’s because I discovered that life is better when I find something satisfying to experience each day that I awake, rather than off in the future. As Daniel Gilbert has written, “When we imagine the future, we often do so in the blind spot of our mind’s eye.” We don’t really know how the future will turn out, and over-fantasizing about it can make it disappointing when it finally arrives.

The definition of daydream is “a reverie indulged in while awake,” a reverie being a “state of dreamy meditation.” This seems like a better way to describe the kind of daydreaming that leads to creativity, problem-solving and fulfilling goals. There’s a saying that ‘where your thoughts go, your energy flows’. In that sense, daydreaming can be uniquely valuable as a way to come up with new ideas, figure out what to do with your life, create a piece of art or music, or imagine a different world.

Sitting in my backyard listening to the birds chirping, watching the butterflies flit around the flowers and losing myself in watching clouds, is the kind of daydreaming that occupies me more now. That “dreamy meditation” invites ideas and images into the conscious mind. It’s the daydreaming that leads to new blog posts, and poems, and learning about nature. It’s the daydreaming that allows me to act on what I imagine.Butterflies_03

On the Psychology Today website, there’s an article by Amy Fries called “The Power of Daydreaming.” It’s an extensive overview of all the ways in which daydreaming is good for us, as well as the ways that daydreaming can be negative, such as if it is too “worry-based”. While it’s helpful to use daydreaming as a way to role-play a situation ahead of time, or assess its risk, it becomes maladaptive if it causes anxiety or obsessive negative thinking.

Daydreaming is essentially what we are engaging in when we use positive visualization or guided imagery to relax. We take ourselves away from the present moment (which might be stressful) and into another place that is beautiful and calm, a place that has meaning for us. Daydreaming becomes a short-term tool for getting through a difficult moment.

Does it seem like there’s a disconnect between present moment awareness and daydreaming, which takes us out of the present moment? Fries doesn’t believe the two have to be in conflict, but thinks that we can find the balance that gives us the right amount of each. She says that we need to be able to imagine art, philosophy, spirituality and progress in order to bring them into existence for ourselves.

So I welcome my daydreams as a respite, and try to be present to the serendipitous ideas that come up in them. Who’s to say what the difference is between daydreaming and just thinking? Albert Einstein once said that, “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” Could he have been talking about daydreams?

Need inspiration? Go outside.

If I told you there was an app for your phone that would help you be more creative, would you buy it? What if I told you that giving up your phone for a while might enhance your creativity? Is that as appealing?

A new study published this week shows that people performed 50% better on a test of creativity after spending four days in nature with no electronic devices. The researchers aren’t sure what exactly caused the gains in creativity — being in nature or giving up the devices, but there’s support for the idea that it’s both of those things.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There’s something called “attentional restoration theory” that apparently relates to multi-tasking. Basically, multitasking requires a lot of executive functioning in the brain, which is kind of exhausting, and the theory is that being in a natural setting can replenish that functioning ability. Other studies have demonstrated that hiking can improve certain mental abilities.

The sad reality is that most of us don’t spend nearly as much time in nature as did previous generations. It’s true that we are not an agrarian society anymore, but it’s also a fact that recreation in nature has declined as time spent with electronics has increased. Yet there’s a lot of evidence that we crave what nature offers us.

Look at our holidays, both religious and secular. Many revolve around symbols of nature. Yes, those holidays originated during agrarian times, but the important thing is that we still celebrate them. So at Christmas, people bring trees into their homes; at the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, people build structures outside, decorated with leaves and branches, in which meals are eaten; at Thanksgiving, a cornucopia is often symbolic; and summer holidays are an occasion for picnicking.

Why are homes and apartments with views of woods and water more valuable? Why do we have houseplants? Why are landscape paintings so popular? Why do we take dozens of photos of sunsets? We are striving to bring the outside in and make that connection with nature.

At the same time, taking a break from 24/7 connection with devices is important too. I read yesterday that silent retreats have become hugely popular in recent years: places that offer solitude and a chance to look inward have waiting lists of people who crave some time in silence. The time spent alone in stillness can be an opportunity to find mental space, to discover things about themselves, to replenish the spirit.

That kind of mental space also nourishes creativity. Why is creativity important? Not only can it help you enhance your ability to reach your highest potential, it is also critically important to managing stress. People who are creative thinkers perceive potential stressors differently, and come up with more ways to cope with them. Creative people are more open to new experiences, so fear doesn’t get in the way of solving problems or achieving dreams. And people who are more creative are also more flexible, enabling them to adapt to new circumstances.

Did you ever get stuck on a problem at work or school, and decide to take a break and go for a walk? Did you find that during your walk you came up with an idea that might move you forward? Fresh air, sun light, and views of nature are food for the mind, body and spirit. As John Muir once wrote, “Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”

Have you played today?

“Health begins where we live, learn, work and play.”

That statement came out of a recent Robert Wood Johnson Foundation commission on building a healthier America. It means that all of the social environments in which we spend time help determine our overall health outcomes.

Play (def.): to occupy oneself in amusement, sport, or other recreation.

But how much do adults play? Is having fun the lowest priority item on your to-do list when obligations at work and at home have to be met? The truth is that, like exercise, we will never have enough extra time for play until we make the time for it and schedule it in our day.

There’s a good case to be made for playing – doing something that’s fun just for the sake of having fun, in a noncompetitive and unpressured way. It helps us regain some of the unqualified joy and spontaneity we had as children, and, possibly, to experience what Buddhists refer to as “beginner’s mind”. Beginner’s mind means looking at something without the lens of prior knowledge, experience, or, especially, judgment. It means simply experiencing something as it is, in the moment, instead of how we want or expect it to be.

Beginner’s mind can more easily be accessed if we regularly try new “play” activities. Being a little bit adventurous, perhaps even taking a risk (whether it is physical, social or psychological) could create an opportunity for a beginner’s mind experience.  A few years ago, I decided that birthdays are a good time of year to try something new. That’s a bit challenging with a birthday at Thanksgiving time, but it was easier on my sister’s summertime birthday, when we tried a 7-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail. We challenged ourselves, took a wrong turn or two, laughed a lot and thought about nothing else for those few hours.

While it’s pretty widely recognized that play is important for children’s development, we sometimes forget that adults have a need for play too. Any type of play, whether it is something we’ve always enjoyed or something new, can give us perspective on other areas of our lives. It can foster creative thinking and problem-solving. Play can stimulate and refresh both brain and body.  Playing with other people helps us make and nurture social connections. Play teaches us to be flexible and cooperative, and to work as a team.

In some workplaces, play is integrated into the workday. Google is probably the most famous for supplying games such as Foosball, ping pong and volleyball on site. At Zappos, one of the company’s core values is to “create fun and a little weirdness”. Other companies provide climbing walls, swimming pools and monthly parties. Some would say that these perks are designed to keep people working longer hours. That may be true, but at least they have the opportunity to take a play break.

What are your ideas for fun at work or at home? Have you played today?