Play is pleasurable, fun and joyful.
When we really play, we stop paying attention to ourselves. That is, we don’t think about whether we look silly or awkward. We’re too busy and too engrossed in the process of play to even notice or care.
Play also connects us to others—we don’t even have to speak the same language. Play strengthens emotional intimacy between partners, too.
In his eye-opening book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, Stuart Brown, MD, founder of the National Institute for Play, speaks about the power of play:
The ability to play is critical not only to being happy, but also to sustaining social relationships and being a creative, innovative person.
If that seems like a big claim, consider what the world would be like without play. It’s not just an absence of games or sports. Life without play is life without books, without movies, art, music, jokes, dramatic stories. Imagine a world with no flirting, no daydreaming, no comedy, no irony. Such a world would be a pretty grim place to live. In a broad sense, play is what lifts people out of the mundane. I sometimes compare play to oxygen—it’s all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing.
Play is different for everyone.
Play can be dancing or banging on the drums. Play can be walking or skipping. Play can be making things, and exploring new materials and methods. Play can be sketching self-portraits and spinning silly stories. Play can be keeping a garden. Play can be baking with your kids. Play can be swinging on the swings and splashing in the pool. Play can be finger-painting and making funny shapes with pancakes.
When was the last time you played? When was the last time you participated in a purposeless, pleasurable, restorative activity?
In his book, Brown suggests exploring our experiences with play, and includes these questions to consider:
- When have you felt free to do and to be what you choose?
- Is this part of your life now? If not, why?
- What do you think stands in your way of experiencing some times of personal freedom?
- Think about the times in your life when you’ve been at your best. (“These are usually authentic play times, and give clues as to where to go for current play experiences.”)
- What have been the impediments to play in your life?
- How and why did some types of play disappear from your repertoire?
- How free are you now as you play with your family or your partner?
For many of us it’s hard to play because our lives are filled with responsibilities: work, errands, chores. It’s all too easy to let all those things hijack our time and energy. This is completely understandable, especially when you’re stuck in autopilot mode: Wake up. Shower. Eat breakfast. Make lunch. Go to work. Make dinner. Watch a show. Go to bed.
But we can create and carve out moments of play. And we can infuse other moments with play—by adjusting our approach and our attitude.
Play is not trivial, frivolous or shallow. In fact, play may be some of our most important work.
How can you prioritize play in your days? What happens when you do?