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.”

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Go out and play!

Plato wrote, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Playing allows us to take risks, to laugh at ourselves, to fall down, and to get back up. We discover truths about ourselves, as well as others.

Earlier this week, my yoga teacher announced at the beginning of class, “We’re just going to play today.” It was the last class there for most of us, since the yoga studio was closing at the end of the week. We all felt a little bittersweet about it, and by making the class more playful, our teacher helped us focus on the sweetness and joy rather than the sadness at the ending.

We went on to practice a lot of partner postures, flying postures and other fun stuff. We had to trust each other and give up some control in order to balance in the air on someone’s feet. Some of us found that easier than others, but there was laughter all around as we played together. And yes, I did learn more about my flying partner in that hour than I ever had by practicing yoga next to her.

Playing helps take us away from the stresses of “real” life, but it also prepares us for them. The first time I tried the trapeze, years ago, I was terrified. You have to stand with your toes hanging off the edge of a platform, high in the air, and lean forward to grab the swing with the assistant only holding onto your harness with a finger. I had to trust myself to reach for the swing as I stepped into the void, and know that there were only two possible outcomes. Either I would be successful, get a grip on the swing, pull my legs up over it, and fly through the air (with the greatest of ease?). Or I would miss the bar, fall into the safety net, and..….be okay. The only thing at risk was my ego.

Why do you think we use terms like “take the plunge” and “leap of faith” to describe life’s risk-taking? Those physical chances we take during play – diving into the deep end of the pool, and jumping off the trapeze — teach us that we will probably be okay even if we fail. By continuing to play as adults, we keep ourselves flexible (mentally and emotionally, as well as physically) and more able to deal with changes that come along.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Do we play enough? NO! Even kids don’t play in the traditional sense nearly as much as they used to. And adults are often so oriented to work and worried about the future that we forget to incorporate play into our lives. Deep down, though, we all want and need to play.

How can you start playing again? Try a Laughter Yoga class, where you can just be goofy and creative for an hour or two. If you’re near Washington D.C., check out an organization called “Spacious” that connects people around fun and play. Bring the Instant Recess program to your workplace. Play in the snow, dance in the street, go on a roller-coaster, ride a wave, or even try the trapeze. Re-discover that baseline joy that comes from letting go and trusting that everything will be okay.

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?