Why is it so important and how do we bring it back into our lives?
There is nothing more carefree than children at play, and it’s lovely to watch. But, as we get older, we stop playing. We feel the need to be productive or we feel so tired from our productive lives that we pursue mindless ways to relax and shut down, like watching TV, but watching TV is not playing, and playing is more important than you think.
Play is pleasurable and energizing, and it facilitates optimism, and expands our minds to new possibilities. It shapes our brain; stimulates nerve growth in the amygdala (emotion- center) and prefrontal cortex (decision-making) and makes us smarter, more creative and more innovative. Play may be that missing piece of our lives that is keeping us from feeling fulfilled. And what is play? Well, according to Stuart Brown, MD., in his book, apply titled, Play, it’s something that is:
- Has an inherent attraction
- Freedom from time
- Diminished consciousness of self
- Improvisational potential
- Continuous desire to keep on doing it
So now that we know what it is, why is it so great?
From an evolutionary standpoint, playing has helped us survive; it helps us socialize successfully, make sound judgments, learn about our environment, rehearse or imagine future events so that we can perfect them in our minds so that it goes well in reality. Take a moment to think about what in your work you enjoy the most and ask yourself, is this related to play or an extension of youthful play? (Eg. Playing doctor, playing house, taking apart electronics to figure out how they work).
what if we are above all that? What if we don’t have time for/want to play?
The disturbing truth is that the opposite of play is not work; it is depression.
We need both work and play together which makes creativity in the work place all the more crucial. Many times the problems we encounter in our daily lives and at work are not the problem, but the problem is how we react to what has happened. If we can react a little more playfully or adjust our attitude, we will realize that there is always a solution, and it will reduce anxiety and increase efficiency and productivity. When we are brain-storming for an idea, this can be an opportunity for play. The idea in brainstorming is to come up with as many ideas as possible, and it actually doesn’t matter if many of the ideas are no good – because all we need is one good idea, and this process can be a lot of fun. It can be silly and lighthearted and very productive. This is how we expand and protect our own creativity and avoid feeling self-conscious; by making it fun and playful.
As parents, we naturally play with our babies. It’s part of the way we bond with them, and it’s crucial for later emotional regulation (smiling at baby, cooing to baby, picking baby up in a silly way). It’s easy when they are babies because that’s all you want to do with them, hold them and kiss them and play with them; peek-a-boo is a phenomenon onto itself. But as they get older, we often forget to play with them, and it’s really important to remember.
Kids crave physicality and as they get older, the games change. They need rough and tumble play which sometimes looks violent, but as long as the kids are happy, it is fine. They need to work out the parameters of what is acceptable for themselves, and make their own adjustments, to make sure all participants are happy.
For girls this type of play emerges through gossiping and cliques, and despite their bad reputation, these social norms are also fine, as long as there is no mean girl or bully. It allows them to negotiate social interactions and learn how to be with other children.
Teasing and flirting are also part of this, and they carry into adulthood – they are ways of expressing truths in a more relaxed and playful way and sometimes make it easier to get things out, with always the excuse, I was just joking. As long as it’s not malicious it is usually fine. This is why it is good to learn how to do this in childhood where mistakes are more forgiving. So if as a parent you are noticing any of these things going on, take a backseat and let your child learn through play.
Think about the dates you used to go on; bowling, dancing, skating, amusement parks. Those are all play dates. When you were dating and enjoying all this play together, it raised your dopamine levels, and increased your pleasure. Well, you should never stop dating! In order to sustain a good relationship over time, you need to have play as part of your relationship – it refreshes and refuels you, you need to enjoy novelty together, world’s sense of irony, imagination and fantasy: true intimacy. If we have true intimacy, it’s easier for us to deal with life changes (getting older and less attractive, illness, death of a parent, loss of a job and other life circumstances that come up).
Can play ever be damaging?
Play can be damaging when it takes the form of bullying or being a “player,” but in actuality these behaviors are really not play, because they are addressing a deep psychological need, when the person cannot deal with life’s challenges and they using these behaviors as a way to avoid their feelings when they feel like they cannot succeed in life or they are too wrapped up in fulfilling their own needs.
Play; the raison d’etre:
Maybe that’s a little hyperbolic, but you know what I mean. It’s really important to integrate play into our lives. It’s the most fun way to nurture the roots of caring, sharing, empathy and trust. That’s right, play offers the opportunity to learn cooperation and socialization, using games, sports, and free play between kids and sets the foundation for our understanding of fairness and justice. Kids learn that cheating is wrong, and they want a fair game, rather than always winning. Play lowers the level of violence and increases communication. It show us common humanity, it shows us how to come together, and allows us to deal with the ever changing world.
How do I do it? Bring Play into my Life?
1. Take a play history of what you liked as a kid. Try to sit and remember through visualization, which helps identify natural talents you may have bypassed, try to remember the activities and feelings you had, let yourself make associations, then start to identify what you can do now that may incorporate some of these things
2. Expose yourself to play – Playing with pets or children, just finding opportunities and taking them, don’t take yourself too seriously
3. Give yourself permission to be playful, let yourself be a beginner – don’t worry about looking silly, try new things
4. Always look ahead to the goal of having fun even if it requires work – meaning some of the fun things we do require effort before and after (packing and getting ready and then laundry and putting away) but that doesn’t mean because it’s not all fun it’s not worth going on a trip, to the beach, etc.
5. Be active, movement is the most basic form of play
6. Free yourself of fear – find out what makes you anxious, find a way to be alone when you are feeling this way, and allow yourself to play/fantasize be happy so play can emerge
7. Nourish your mode of play, and be with people who nourish it too – take time for yourself
You will not regret it!