“We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.”
A couple of weekends ago, I was at a festival called “Divine Play” (such a great name!) It is a weekend full of workshops on acroyoga, where one person (the base) supports another person (the flyer) with their hands and feet as they flow through different poses and acrobatics. Acroyoga is a ton of fun and involves cultivating trust, strength, and a willingness to play and be creative. It typically attracts a pretty amazing, playful group of people and spending three days straight with that crowd is always a good time. It is so fun to see a group of adults who understand how to play and who clearly take delight in being silly, trying new things, and being loving and supportive of one another, both physically and emotionally!
Unfortunately, many of us are not great at making play a priority in our lives. When we were kids, playing all day and all night long was a perfectly acceptable activity. Put a bunch of kids in a room together and whether there are toys or not, they will find a way to play. They will make up games, chase each other around, and entertain themselves for hours – it comes naturally! We all seem to understand that play is important for kids, that it is essential to a healthy childhood.
But as we grow up, we learn that play is frivolous and something that should be left behind in childhood. Who has time for play when you are going to school, building a career, starting a business, buying a house, and all the other “adult” activities that crowd our lives? People who work all day and night are praised for their determination and ambition, whereas people who make play a priority are seen as lazy bums who are just out to have a good time and will never succeed at anything.
Obviously there is a balance to be struck between play and work, but so many of us are tipped far too much in the work direction. At what point in our lives does this change take place? When do we decide that play is no longer an activity to be valued and encouraged?
What exactly is play?
I think one reason many of us stop playing is that we think it has to look a certain way that feels childish to us, but there are so many different ways to play! In his TED talk, Stuart Brown proposes five different categories of play: Rough and tumble play, Ritual play, Imaginative play, Body play, and Object play. As children, these things all come naturally to us but as adults, we have to re-learn how to have fun in a variety of different ways. Put a group of kids together in a room with nothing else in it and they will immediately find ways to play, often creating their own made-up games, but adults seem to need a bit more structure and encouragement, or even permission. Why do we need permission to play as adults but not as kids?
Brown is also the head of a nonprofit called The National Institute for Play (how great is that!?). He defines play as something that is done for pleasure and for its own sake, with the action itself being more important than the outcome. How often do you spend your time doing something simply for pleasure or for fun, rather than because you are working towards a particular outcome? Of course, as mentioned before, play can end up having many positive benefits, but the act itself is something we do simply because we enjoy it, not because we have a particular goal in mind.
For example, playing a card game because you enjoy the game is considered play, but playing because you are gambling and trying to win money is not. In our society that is so driven on outcomes and achievement, play offers us an opportunity to do something out of pure joy and pleasure rather than focusing on the end result. And while play does have many social benefits, it does not always have to involve other people. The main thing to remember with play is that it is voluntary and is time away from daily demands and stressors.
Benefits of play
It can be hard to view play as a priority when we are juggling so many things in our adults lives: work, family, personal projects, exercise, making food, friendships, etc. etc. etc.! For many people, having fun and playing just doesn’t seem important enough or necessary enough to carve time out of our busy schedules to make sure that it happens. But the truth is, there are myriad positive benefits of play as adults and those benefits can improve many other areas in our lives and help us to be happier and healthier overall.
For one thing, playing with others can enhance relationships and build strong communities. Playing allows us to connect with others in a meaningful way, whether we are playing a sport or a board game. Playing together can strengthen relationships by building trust, developing social skills and cooperation, and creating joyful memories and connections that just don’t happen as much if you are sitting on the couch watching a movie.
Play and exploration are not only good for social reasons, but for keeping our brains sharp, too! Regular play can improve memory, stimulate growth of the cerebral cortex, and increase attention span and creative problem solving abilities.
Incorporating play into your work environment can have huge benefits as well, which is something many companies are beginning to take advantage of by providing employees with time and space to play throughout the workday. Making space in the workday for play keeps people joyful and energized and actually increases productivity rather than taking away from it. And of course the social benefits associated with play can help foster teamwork and engagement between coworkers.
While you may not feel like you have time in your week to carve out specifically for play, there are many ways that we can combine play with the other activities that keep us busy! If you have plans with friends, see if you can do something new or silly together – take an acroyoga class, participate in a city-wide scavenger hunt, play a round of laser tag, or have a board game night! Many of these activities incorporate exercise as well, so you’re killing a bunch of birds with one stone (sorry, birds…)!
Play and travel
For me, there is something about traveling that puts me in even more of a playful mindset than I usually am. When I travel, I am already in a space of being more open, more explorative, more willing to go outside my comfort zone, try new things and go on adventures with new people. And when you are meeting new people as you travel, you are exposed to the ways that they play, too! Play could be taking silly pictures in front of national monuments, going for a bike ride around a beautiful city, playing a new game from a different culture, learning to surf or trying skydiving for the first time.
Traveling also helps us to push our boundaries and become more open to new experiences, both of which are important aspects of play! Being silly and playful can feel uncomfortable sometimes because it is so ingrained in us to be responsible and mature as adults. But if you travel often, you learn to go outside your comfort zone, to explore the world around you, and you learn to be ok with pushing yourself and feeling a bit exposed at times.
Because of this, travel and play go hand in hand and both help open us up to new relationships and a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Travel and play both keep our lives exciting, fresh, and joyful and while they may at first glance seem like selfish or useless pursuits, they both have so many benefits that radiate throughout our lives and the lives of those around us.
So, how do you play? What activities make you laugh, feel silly, or bring you joy? What do you do simply for enjoyment with no particular outcome in mind? Do you like completing crosswords, playing a sport, being creative, dressing up in costumes, working together to solve a puzzle? Whatever it is, find ways to incorporate more play into every area of your life and reap the amazing benefits it has to offer!