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Play is for grown-ups
The science of play shows it's an essential lifelong activity to cultivate healthy brain functioning, increase our connection to others, learn faster, and boost the emotional system that drives joy.
Researchers studying serial killers have found they share something unusual: as children, they were deprived of play.
It’s time to take play seriously. Dead seriously.
In 1966, Dr. Stuart Brown, a professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine, was assigned to be the state’s consulting psychiatrist on the case of a mass-shooter, Charles Whitman, who killed 46 people from his perch atop the University of Texas Tower. As Dr. Brown investigated that incident, and later interviewed 26 convicted Texas murderers in a study, he found that they all came from abusive families and they had never played as kids. This striking pattern led him to spend the next 42 years studying this phenomenon, trying to understand which element was most important. He interviewed more than 6000 people about their childhoods, and in the process kicked off a scientific movement to investigate the importance of play.
It turns out that a lack of opportunities for unstructured, imaginative play can keep children from growing into happy, well-adjusted adults. “Free play,” is critical for becoming socially adept, coping with stress and building cognitive skills such as problem solving, skills we developed to survive.
Unfortunately, between 1981 and 1997, children’s free play time dropped by 1/4, as parents focused more on structured activities, such as music lessons, sports teams, art classes, or math tutoring—all designed, from an early age, to help with later in life success, such as college admissions. Outcome focused. Effortful. Serious.
Kids deprived of free play turn into anxious, unhappy, poorly adjusted adults, but luckily it’s never too late for any of us to benefit from play. You can turn back the clock, at least to a degree.
It turns out, play is also good for grown-ups.
On a neurological level, free play has been found to be critical for continued brain health throughout our lifetimes. It increases brain plasticity, helps make new neural connections and aids in learning. It reduces stress and increases resilience and creativity. It aids in problem solving and bouncing back from challenges. Without it, we falter, get caught in cycles of chronic stress, and our brains grow brittle.
Play is seriously important.
My Search for Play
I first found out about the critical importance of play for adults when I was reading about The Healthy Mind Platter, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.
I was deep in a phase of my life where work had largely taken over. Plus, I was divorced and dating, rather unsuccessfully. All in all, things were feeling pretty un-fun.
Life was kinda grey. Long work hours and constant high-stakes work situations, in which it wasn’t uncommon to get publicly thrown under the bus by top leaders, had turned strategy work (which I loved) into something that felt deeply taxing.
Meanwhile on the dating apps, I was endlessly meeting nice-enough guys who also seemed most interested in loose connections without much communication, support, or emotional engagement. It was starting to feel like a cycle of rejection and/or a dumpster fire. Didn’t anyone want more with me? From me? For me? Did anyone even know how anymore?
Adulting seemed like it wasn’t for me. I am, apparently, so totally Millennial.
When I read that play was important for adults— that it was, in fact, one of seven healthy habits necessary for optimal brain health, and that it contributed to our overall ability to fully engage with life, perform at work, and keep ourselves in good mental health—I was stunned. I had nothing in my life that felt like the play psychology and neuroscience researchers were describing.
If there was ever a time to bring up the cliche’d “gut punch,” it would have been that moment.
In my recent post about the 7 Healthy Mind activities, I summed up what I learned about play and what it does for us:
Play time: Engaging in activities that promote creativity, exploration, newness, humor, and joy.
Play isn’t about competition or competitive sports, though when approached playfully these activities can fit, since play is all about mindset. Play is a mindset which keeps us young and keeps our brains plastic. When we allow ourselves to be spontaneous or creative, playfully enjoying novel experiences, we help make new connections in the brain.
Play is a fundamentally social activity, and research shows that play-joy is one of the core emotional systems in all mammals, including humans. Activating this system provides neuro-adaptive benefits such as managing stress and promoting behaviors that allow us to more flexibly, lightly, and open-mindedly handle unexpected events and situations that are out of our control.
The thing is, I had literally no idea how to put this into practice in my life. What exactly was play for an adult, in reality? How did I incorporate it on a daily basis? What did I need to do?
More than Games
To figure out what play actually was, I did what I always do when facing a new challenge. I researched!
After bumbling around the internet exploring playful, unserious games for adults, team building activities, and more, I finally stumbled upon The National Institute of Play, founded by Dr. Brown.
Dr. Stuart Brown founded the National Institute for Play to study the scientific knowledge on play behavior and understand its implications. Thirty years later, there have been many discoveries indicating that play is life-giving:
Adults who play experience less stress and more optimism and well-being.
Children who are allowed time for free play are faster learners, more creative, and more socially competent.
“We are built to play and built by play,” Dr Brown says.
As I hungrily read his work and explored his website, I couldn’t help but feel a weight lift off of me.
“Play is state of mind that one has when absorbed in an activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of sense of time. And play is self-motivated so you want to do it again and again,” Dr. Brown explains.
Because play is a state of mind, it doesn’t matter what activity puts you into this mind space. It matters that you find the activity which does. For one person it might be kicking a ball around, for another making brush strokes on canvas, for a third it might be keeping a poker face during a card game, a for a fourth it might be singing in the shower.
Another play researcher, Dr. Peter Grey, used his studies to come up with a definition for the sort of play that is truly beneficial for our brains and wellbeing. To be most beneficial, we must find play activities that are:
Self-chosen and self-directed;
Intrinsically motivated (that is, the means are more valued than the ends);
Structured or ordered based on rules in the player’s mind;
Imaginative, or has a creative aspect); and
Incorporates a playful state of mind—the player is very engaged, alert, mentally active, and focused on the activity, but is not stressed about the activity (they have no fear of judgment, and there are no consequences that matter outside of the activity itself).
Knowing this, I began to cast around in my mind for memories that recollected those feelings. I hit upon a memory of an improv workshop I’d taken one afternoon during graduate school.
A group of twenty adults had gathered in a gymnasium for the workshop. All around us were toys: giant inflated balls, pool noodles, football fan foam fingers. Our instructors called us to circle up in the middle of the room, where we stiffly stared at each other. Beside me was my friend Ingrid, but otherwise, the room was full of strangers.
Our instructors introduced themselves as “the word-play guy,” a brown-haired white-dude, and “the tank,” a slight, round-faced Asian woman with a mischievous grin. Everything about them seemed light, smiling, open.
As they demonstrated our first activity, they mirrored each other’s movements, one following as the other did sillier and sillier things. The sillier they got, the more they laughed. And the more our group laughed too… but in discomfort.
We were going to have to do that weird stuff next?
It wasn’t my first improv workshop. I’d done one in high school, and I remembered it fondly. But that didn’t change my sense that this was going to be awkward. It didn’t make me feel any less stiff. I was out of practice.
Soon I was paired up with a tall skinny guy in glasses. I found myself making bizarre gestures, which he followed as closely as possible. I jerked my arm to the left, my body following, and he went too. I made a face, sticking out my tongue, and he did the same. I threw my hands up in the air and jumped. Up he went.
My brain was on overdrive. What should I do next? How would I decide? Would my partner think I looked stupid? Who else was watching me? Oh crud, what else should I do now? And now? And now?
But after a few minutes, I stopped thinking so much. I was laughing too hard. By the time we were instructed to swap roles, and my partner started leading, the energy of the entire room had shifted. Everyone was loose, grinning, and meeting each others’ eyes with new ease.
Afterwards, as our instructors circled us back up, handing out balls, and noodles and foam fingers, a ripple of laughter went out through the group. But this time it wasn’t from nerves. It was in anticipation. When the instructors said we were going to fight each other with the toys, and our job was to react in exaggerated ways, not one person looked anything other than delighted.
Years later, remembering that day with a smile on my face, I decided it was time to find myself another improv class.
Some Ideas for Adult Play
Unfortunately, I soon discovered there was just one adult improv class on offer in Seattle, where I lived, and it was across town. It started at 6pm on Tuesdays and I knew there was no way I’d ever be able to make that fit into my life, what with my work schedule and the level of rush-hour traffic between me and the improv theater.
I was back to the drawing board. Time for more research.
Diving back into the National Institute of Play website, I found I had options. It turns out there are a wide range of “types” of play that get our brains going in all the right ways.
Attunement play - much like the mirroring exercise in my improv workshop, this type of play syncs our brains up with another person’s through eye contact and and connected play. This builds neural pathways that form foundation for trust.
Body and movement play - it is what it sounds like. Moving in playful ways activates areas of the brain connected to learning, innovation, adaptability and resilience.
Object play - the pleasure of interacting with the world around us, from putting together a puzzle, to kicking a ball. This type of play, using our hands in the real world, helps our brains learn to identify problems and stimulates creative problem solving, so much so that the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) found that having this kind of background made the difference between low performers and high performers.
Imaginative play - all about stories, ideas, fictional worlds, and make-believe. This kind of play often shows up as fragments of ideas, brought to light in creative ways. It nourishes the human spirit by activating the play-joy emotional limbic system, freeing us from the need for realism or the limits of the possible.
Social play - having fun with others lubricates social interactions and builds trust between people, a building block for successful relationships.
Rough and tumble play - friendly fighting or play fighting, includes full body contact. For kids it helps them learn the give-and-take needed for social mastery, and how to control their aggression. For adults it relieves stress and can shift us out of aggression into fun.
Celebratory and ritual play - the fun part of serious events, like the dance party after a wedding, imbued with meaning but filled with joy. This play helps build good memories and mark important moments with joyful meaning.
Storytelling and narrative play - a core element of how humans understand the world around them, storytelling is more than simply imagination play. It is a way for us to put disparate information together into a context that tells us about how things are and how they should be. It can produce a sense of vicarious involvement, timelessness, and pleasure as we get lost in stories.
We all engage in these different kinds of play at different times, and, depending on our play personality (what!?) we may be drawn to some more than others.
As I contemplated this list of ideas, thinking about why the improv class had appealed to me and what else might offer some similar elements, I hit upon the idea of trying a stand-up comedy class.
While it wouldn’t necessarily incorporate as much physical movement as an improv class, it hit upon some other elements I loved: storytelling and imagination, attunement with the audience, elements of ritual, and laughter. It felt light.
Better yet, I actually found a workshop that was in walking distance of my office, led by a well-known weird-comic around town who also happened to be a friend of a friend. I quickly signed up.
Play at Work
“The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression,” said Brian Sutton-Smith, a play theorist and creator of the encyclopedia of play and playgrounds.
Once I started the stand-up class, having something silly to look forward to helped change my mindset. I’d find myself giggling on my walk to work as I thought up stories to tell to my fellow stand-up classmates later in the week. I saw difficult situations through a new light, wondering if they might become funny stories I could share.
Would the CTO’s draconian behavior make a good anecdote? Especially since he had slicked-back black hair, a deep widows’ peak, and an Eastern European accent a la count Dracula? Would one VP’s over-the-top bright pink, red, and purple designer outfits contrast entertainingly with her darkly vicious tongue?
One day I went on a quick first date right before class. Afterwards, shaking with fury, I rushed onto stage, the first in the class to grab the mic that night. The story of my terrible date tumbled out of me with runaway train energy.
The room shook with laughter as I eviscerated the guy. He was a former child-actor, turned real-estate investor (though he couldn’t name any actual projects). Even more entertaining, he was promoter for The Secret, and made money when he sold people on their workshops and courses. He professed that because he’d learned The Secret he could think anything into being. Anything at all. Name it and I could have it. Except for one thing, apparently: he wanted me to order a second drink with him and I did not want to. He tried to push one on me so many times that the waitress finally told him to pipe down—the lady clearly didn’t want anything more. I guess The Secret doesn’t work on dates.
Just as I tried to leave the date to head to class, Mr. Secret surprised me with a forceful kiss, his hands holding me tightly in place as I tried to squirm away, leaning over backwards while he leaned forwards. When I mentioned that this entire charade went down while we were still in full view of the packed bar, my classmates groaned in laughter. The catharsis was delightful.
Still, I never did manage to finish the class series. My comic tight-ten remains unfinished. At work, a large project came up and I started having to stay later and later at the office, missing so many standup classes in a row that I realized I wasn’t going to make it to our final showcase. I was bummed. But I wasn’t giving up.
I was back to the search for playful activities.
Apparently, researchers have found seven play personalities. While we may blend a few of them, finding out which ones are our primaries can help us hone in on playful activities that offer the most bang for their buck.
The collector - finds a thrill in collecting things, whether it’s objects, experiences, or stamps in a passport, views of solar eclipses, bike trails completed, you name it
The competitor - enjoys the game because they like to figure out the rules and the strategies, and then score wins. Still, this isn’t the person who stomps off when they lose. The fun is in the process of competing: the focus required, the channeling of energy under stress, the rush of it all.
The creator / artist - loves making things, from arts and crafts to computers, houses, or interior decor.
The director - loves planning and making things happen. They’re party planners, organizers, and the social hubs of their groups.
The explorer - discovering new places and experiences, seeking out new feelings and emotions, listening to new music, meeting new people, all of these spark play
The joker - they love foolishness, clowning, and laughter. Practical jokes, stand-up, improv, physical play, all contribute
The kinesethete - they love to move, and it helps them think. Dance, swimming, walking, yoga, jump rope, you name it, the fun is in the motion.
The storyteller - imagination is the name of the game, and they may love creating stories through writing, film, or plays… or performing stories as actors, magicians, lectures or dance… or consuming stories by reading and watching. For the storyteller, even a game of tennis is more of a drama, with each point part of the plot.
On the list of play personalities, I saw so many options for myself, and realized I have many! In fact, I’m drawn to playful activities pretty broadly. Creating, exploring, joking, moving, and storytelling all capture my best self and bring her forth. With this in mind, I found myself trying out new activities to see what felt right.
One dance class I found involved dancing in the near-dark with a group of almost 200 other people. Electronic dance music, heavy beats, and deep bass blasted over impressive speakers in the studio, reverberating through us as we followed the movements of our instructor without being able to even hear her.
Circling around with her at the center, hundreds of sweaty humans watched and mimicked, and let the beat take us to a higher place. It felt like an aerobics class and a night out clubbing had birthed an 8pm Tuesday night spiritual baby, and it was my favorite new thing.
It was ninety minutes of movement, attuning to the instructor and the people around me, clicking into the life-affirming beat, and finally, at the very end, holding hands in a circle and giving thanks for our connection. They called it Dance Church. It was truly a communion.
The more I danced with abandon, the lighter I felt on a daily basis.
Unfortunately, when Covid hit, the class moved to Zoom. It was still fun, but without the energy of 200 other people all around me it wasn’t quite the same. I had to go in search of new forms of play to scratch the right itch.
It didn’t happen right away, which is likely one reason why I wound up burning out. Work took over again. The walls of my life—and very literally my condo—closed in.
Keep Playing, Everywhere, Always
Clearly the need to play doesn’t go away, and with our ever-changing lives, we have to keep searching for opportunities. It’s critical to our wellbeing.
When I told a friend I was going to write about the science of play, she forwarded me the link to a podcast episode she’d just listened to, called “How to Unlock Your Inner Child Through Play” on The Balanced Life. The guest speaker in the episode is Kara Latta, a coach whose business is called The Playful Warrior.
I resonated with Kara’s exploration of play, and one of my favorite parts of the episode was the way she tells us to approach life as a “Playful Experiment.” This perfectly encapsulates the idea that play is a mindset we can bring to everything we do.
Since everything in life is temporary and changeable, it means life is entirely a playful experiment. Nothing is permanent. We always get another try. And as the science has pointed out, playing with life in this way creates resilience.
So whenever you encounter challenges or hard times, you have the opportunity to ask yourself, “how can I approach this as a playful experiment?”
You can playfully brainstorm on your problems—even at work. You can start with silly ideas that don’t even make sense. You can strive to find the worst idea that makes you laugh the most. The more you play with things without the need for performance, focused instead on the experience fresh, spontaneous, light, fun, engagement and humor, the more you will change your brain.
You’ll increase your cognition, adaptability, and creativity. You’ll connect with others easier and sparks will glow in your relationships.
So let’s see if we can do it. Let’s take a playful mindset with us as we go. Let’s start our days with something playful that lightens us up, be it a yogic laughing exercise or a quick doodle in the journal or a joke with the kids. Let’s play with others, connecting through our silly wierdnesses. Let’s be vulnerable enough to show up goofy.
There’s no need to separate play from the rest of our lives, from work or family time or house cleaning or hobbies.
Wishing you a playful life, with all the fun I can muster,
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