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Why we need to make time to play

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When was the last time you were at play? Hopefully, it was in the last few days. But if you’re like most adults, you’ll probably need a second or two to think about your answer to that question.

When we were kids, we spent a lot of time playing alone and with friends. And it was even structured into our days. At my primary school, we used to call the morning tea break “play lunch”. Even into my high-school years, play was present in creative writing exercises in English, science fair projects, and physical education.

But as we grow up, we typically leave play behind us. It’s seen as too childish; something we no longer have time for.

It turns out that humans are wired to play, not only in childhood, but throughout our lifespan. It has a range of significant benefits, and not playing can actually hurt us or hold us back, in a variety of ways.

Defining 'play'

Play is one of those funny things where we know it when we see it, but putting it into words can be quite tricky. That’s partly because there are so many different ways in which humans can and do ‘play’.

An expert's definition of play

Stuart Brown is widely considered an expert in the field of play, including the negative effects of a lack of play. He has this to say: “What all play has in common is that it offers a sense of engagement and pleasure, takes the player out of a sense of time and place, and the experience of it is more important than the outcome”.

So, play is an activity that we get absorbed in, that’s fun, and that we do for the joy of doing it, not for the results it might produce.

Imagine going to a casino and watching two players at a card table. The first is enjoying the challenge of managing their cards and guessing what other players are thinking. The second is focused on winning the pot of money. The first person is at play, the second isn’t.

Other definitions of play

There are many other definitions and characteristics of ‘play’, including:

  • It is both a process and a state of being
  • It’s typically purposeless, fun, and pleasurable
  • The focus is not on a goal or outcome, but on the experience
  • A time to forget about work commitments
  • An opportunity to be social in an unstructured, free-flowing, and creative manner

Positive emotions and play

We intuitively understand that there is a link between positive emotions and play – after all, it’s pretty hard to stay grumpy if you’re having a tickle-fest with your favourite kids!

But what is actually going on? The ‘Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions’ sheds some light on how positive emotions and play work together to help us thrive.

The 'Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions'

Barbara Fredrickson has spent many years studying the effects of positive and negative emotions on individuals, teams, and organisations. She developed the Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions as a way of explaining how pleasant emotions contribute to overall wellbeing and resilience.

Negative emotions

Negative emotions have been widely studied, and it is generally accepted that, when we experience a negative emotion, we generally react in a few, limited ways (e.g. fight, flight, or freeze in the face of fear, withdrawl and purging in the face of disgust etc). These are known as “specific action tendencies” – that is, most humans across different countries, cultures, and centuries, react in the same specific ways in the face of each negative emotion. These reactions are typically assumed to have helped humans to survive over millennia, thereby becoming hard-wired into our brains.

Positive emotions

Positive emotions, on the other hand, tend to evoke a wide range of responses, even in people of the same culture and location. In fact, as individuals, we are likely to respond differently over time to the same positive emotional experience.

When we experience positive emotions, according to Fredrickson, we produce two outcomes:

  • we broaden the our attention and the types of behaviours we engage in, becoming more creative, responding with greater nuance and complexity, and enhancing our skills and competencies, and
  • we build up resources (physical, social, emotional, psychological) that can help us when we face challenges in the future

These outcomes lead to greater wellbeing, which in turn feeds back into more experiences of positive emotions. This can become a self-reinforcing feedback loop, leading to increasing levels of wellbeing and flourishing.

A diagram showing steps up from positive emotions to flourishing, and a feedback arrow back to positive emotions

An example of Broaden and Build in action

An example of how broaden and build works is to look at young animals as they engage in rough-and-tumble play. While they’re rolling around, jumping on each other, play-biting, and generally looking like they are having the time of their lives, they are testing, learning, and honing skills that will help them when they are adults (tracking, jumping, biting, and surprise attacks, as well as avoiding being tracked, jumped on, bitten, and surprised) – that is, they are broadening the behaviours they are able to use.

They are also developing their relationship with one another (‘I trust that you’re not going to do me harm, so I’ll keep playing’) which will be useful when they need to hunt together or join forces to protect the pack, and they are building their physical strength and prowess – the build piece of the theory.

The benefits of play

While play has not had the same amount of research funding and attention as other aspects of human behaviour, the findings so far are remarkably consistent with each other, and with the Broaden and Build Theory. Regularly engaging in play and taking a playful approach to our lives has been linked to:

  • reduced stress
  • greater creativity
  • better sleep
  • improved brain function
  • stronger relationships
  • increased cooperation
  • broader thinking
  • fresh perspectives
  • emotional healing
  • more perseverance
  • better social skills
  • enhanced teamwork
  • improved energy
  • reduced burnout
  • natural “high” from endorphins
  • better problem-solving
  • increased language abilities
  • enhanced confidence
  • deeper empathy
  • increased goal-attainment
  • more optimism
  • stronger immune system
  • improved communication
  • greater vitality

Who wouldn’t want more of all of that?! And yet, we often stay stuck in the thinking that playing is for kids, and we have to concentrate on our “adulting”.

So let’s look at some of the downsides of a lack of play.

The downsides of no play

We all know the saying “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”, but the effects of a lack of play are far deeper than simply becoming a boring person. There is a growing body of evidence that suppressing play can have lifelong negative effects, including a greater likelihood of experiencing issues with relationships, mental health, violence, and crime.

Even if you had a playful childhood, suppressing the urge to play as an adult can have negative effects, such as:

  • lack of passion or enthusiasm
  • inability to problem-solve
  • mental rigidity (unable to think creatively or take fresh perspectives)
  • feeling cranky, stuck in a rut, or victimised

Types of play

Hopefully by now, you’re convinced of the value of keeping our sense of play alive and well. The next step is to figure out what ‘play’ looks like for you.

Play is like a fingerprint – it’s a characteristic that all humans share, but the finer details are unique to each individual. What is one person’s play is someone else’s worst nightmare, but we can categorise play into various types.

Stuart Brown talks about five types of play:

  • Body play – the desire to break free, even momentarily, from gravity. Think jumping, wriggling, dancing etc.
  • Object play – the hand and brain work together to manipulate items. Think painting, sandcastles, sculpting, mud-pie-making etc
  • Rough and tumble play – engaging physically with others. Think games of chase or tag, wrestling, playfighting etc
  • Spectator or ritual play – observing unfolding events while also feeling engaged. Think watching sports, going to church or theatre etc
  • Imaginative play – using our creativity to create something entirely new. Think story-telling, cloud-watching etc.

René Proyer identified four kinds of adult playfulness:

  • Other-directed – enjoying playing with others, using one’s playfulness to improve social relationships, loosen up tense situations, and enjoying good-natured teasing
  • Lighthearted – viewing life as a game, not worrying too much about future consequences, favouring improvisation
  • Intellectual – playing with ideas and thoughts, thinking about multiple solutions for problems
  • Whimsical – being amused by strange and weird activities and situations, easily amusing oneself through observing everyday situations and interactions

There is no hierarchy of types of play – no one type is better than any other. Nor should we feel like we should be engaging in all types of play – that would make things distinctly un-play-like!

Rather, we can note our preferences and then look for ways to incorporate them into our life, by considering our play history.

Developing your "play history"

Brown is an advocate for developing a “play history”; that is, an account of what sorts of play we experienced as kids, and which activities used to spark joy in us. We then use those insights to start or amp up activities that reconnect us to the same emotions we experienced as kids.

In his words: “…explore backwards as far as you can go to the most clear, joyful, playful image that you have, whether it’s with a toy, on a birthday or on a vacation. And begin to build to build from the emotion of that into how that connects with your life now.”

Stuart Brown’s ‘Serious Play’ talk is well-worth a watch, as he explains why play is such a serious business for us. From the 2008 Art Center Design Conference.

How to get more play into your life

One of the keys to getting more play in your life is to stop thinking of play and work as opposite things. In fact, Brown suggests that the opposite of play is actually depression, not work. So, we can bring a sense of play and fun to work, too (within appropriate bounds, of course!).

To bring more play into you life, try some of the following tactics:

  • Reframe how you think about play – give yourself permission to play in a way that suits your personality and preferences
  • Hang out with playful people – you’ll encourage each other to play more
  • Play with kids – get down on your hands and knees and enter fully into their world
  • Schedule it – this probably sounds weird, but booking in time for play will help you commit to it; play won’t happen by accident for us adults
  • Allow yourself to be bored – it’s the same advice as for kids: when you allow yourself to be bored, your creativity will kick in. So put your phone down, switch off your computer, and wait for inspiration to strike
  • Follow your nose – what grabs your interest? Bringing a sense of curiosity and wonder to what you see and hear will help you enter into a spirit of play

The great news is that you don’t have to feel playful to start playing – if you can start playing, even if only half-heartedly, you’ll start to feel more playful. We can literally act ourselves into feeling the way we want to feel.

With that in mind, pick a couple of ideas from the list below, and make a commitment to yourself to “put them into play” (I know, it’s a terrible pun, but I’m trying to be playful!) this week. Take note of how you feel before, during, and after. Keep track of the activities that give you the biggest boost, and put them on high-rotation in your life.

Some playful activity ideas

  • share jokes with friends
  • climb a tree
  • play hopscotch
  • go swimming
  • fingerpaint
  • chat to a stranger in a queue
  • learn to juggle
  • play card games
  • go bowling 
  • squish some playdough/slime
  • blow bubbles
  • learn to cook a new recipe
  • play fetch with your dog (or cat!)
  • jump rope
  • sing karaoke
  • build something with Lego or blocks
  • try a maze or escape room
  • throw a frisbee
  • play a board game
  • do some brain-teasers
  • host a murder-mystery night
  • pick flowers
  • fly a kite
  • play minigolf
  • build models
  • kick a ball around
  • go on a picnic
  • do a jigsaw
  • decorate/dress up to a theme (e.g. Halloween, Christmas, flower-power, superheroes etc)
  • play charades
  • take up a new hobby
  • go on a scavenger hunt
  • write a poem or short story
  • play hide-and-seek
  • learn some magic tricks
  • do some cloud-gazing
  • dance around your living room
  • build sandcastles
  • make mud-pies
  • play tag

The short and sweet version

Play is vital to our wellbeing as adults, as it offers a huge number and variety of benefits with very little downside (although as adults we sometimes have to pick our playful moments with a bit more care).

If you want to improve your wellbeing and enjoyment of life, think of the playful things you used to love doing as a kid, and reintroduce a few of them into your day and week. You’ll be so happy that you did!

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