Life without play is a grinding, mechanical existence organized around doing the things necessary for survival. Play is the stick that stirs the drink. It is the basis of all art, games, books, sports, movies, fashion, fun, and wonder—in short, the basis of what we think of as civilization. Play is the vital essence of life. It is what makes life lively.
Engineers are professional skeptics. To them, good things and useful ideas last, like laws of nature. Engineers build on the bedrock of established fact. They usually regard emotional components of a system as too vague to be useful.
PROPERTIES OF PLAY Apparently purposeless (done for its own sake) Voluntary Inherent attraction Freedom from time Diminished consciousness of self Improvisational potential Continuation desire
the first quality of play that sets it off from other activities is its apparent purposelessness. Play activities don’t seem to have any survival value. They don’t help in getting money or food. They are not done for their practical value. Play is done for its own sake. That’s why some people think of it as a waste of time. It is also voluntary—it is not obligatory or required by duty. Play also has inherent attraction. It’s fun. It makes you feel good. It provides psychological arousal (that’s how behavioral scientists say that something is exciting). It is a cure for boredom. Play provides freedom from time. When we are fully engaged in play, we lose a sense of the passage of time. We also experience diminished consciousness of self. We stop worrying about whether we look good or awkward, smart or stupid. We stop thinking about the fact that we are thinking. In imaginative play, we can even be a different self. We are fully in the moment, in the zone.
Another hallmark of play is that it has improvisational potential. We aren’t locked into a rigid way of doing things. We are open to serendipity, to chance. We are willing to include seemingly irrelevant elements into our play. The
We see things in a different way and have fresh insights.
Last, play provides a continuation desire. We desire to keep doing it, and the pleasure of the experience drives that desire. We find ways to keep it going. If something threatens to stop the fun, we improvise new rules or conditions so that the play doesn’t have to end. And when it is over, we want to do it again.
The things that most tie you down or constrain you—the need to be practical, to follow established rules, to please others, to make good use of time, all wrapped up in a self-conscious guilt—are eliminated. Play is its own reward, its own reason for being.
When anyone smiles at another person, they are reaching out, engaging in a play invitation as clear as a dog’s play bow.
Cats and other social mammals such as rats will, if seriously missing out on play, have an inability to clearly delineate friend from foe, miscue on social signaling, and either act excessively aggressive or retreat and not engage in more normal social patterns. In the give-and-take of mock combat, the cats are learning what Daniel Goleman calls emotional intelligence—the ability to perceive others’ emotional state, and to adopt an appropriate response.
Our primary need is to survive from one day to the next. The strongest drives are for food and sleep. When we are in peril, play will disappear. But studies show that if they are well fed, safe, and rested, all mammals will play spontaneously.
We are rewarded for behavior that conforms to the dictates of the biological drives and punished for behavior that goes against them. We feel pain when we don’t eat, and great pleasure when we are finally able to chow down (as the saying goes, “Hunger is the best sauce”). A great night’s sleep, especially after a string of sleepless nights, is one of the most satisfying, free pleasures available.
In an individual who is well-adjusted and safe, play very likely continues to prompt continued neurogenesis throughout our long lives. For example, studies of early dementia suggest that physical play forestalls mental decline by stimulating neurogenesis.
Runner’s World magazine once divided runners into four types: the exerciser, the competitor, the enthusiast, and the socializer. The exerciser is someone who runs primarily to lose weight, to stay in shape, to improve cardiovascular fitness. The competitor runs to improve race time, to beat others, to make a PB (personal best). Enthusiasts run to experience the joy of the day, to feel their muscles working and the air on their face. For the socializer, running is primarily an activity to bring people together for talking, which is the real fun. All four types are certainly running, but the internal experience can be very different. The truth is that the enthusiast and the socializer are most likely to be engaged in pure play—pursuing the activity for the joy it brings (and you could say that for the socializer the source of joy is the talking, not the running itself). The other two may be running mostly in pursuit of goals—perhaps fast times or fitness—that can take away the joy from the experience and add stress to their lives. If exercisers or competitors feel lousy when they don’t meet certain expectations they have for themselves, what they are doing is not really play.
Sometimes running is play, and sometimes it is not.
Play is a state of mind, rather than an activity.
Watching sports, sitcoms, Oprah, or an excellent drama on TV is usually a type of play, as is reading a novel. Think about how you feel walking out of a really good movie, bringing your mind back again to the everyday world but retaining a changed perspective. One critic remembers walking out of Lawrence of Arabia and feeling that the sunlight looked different. This sense of coming back to the world shows that the movie was indeed play. So is reliving its scenes in your mind later. Hobbies like model airplane building, kite flying, or sewing are most often play.
When Roger took me through his laboratory he was like a kid as he described his experiments. Here was the biggest, most expensive sandbox he had ever played with, all set up to let him discover wonderful new things. I still remember his glee when he told me about his latest work:
When we stop playing, we start dying.
She said that I had convinced her that play is important, and said she worried about her kids, ten and twelve years old, getting enough time to play but still studying and working enough that they would be successful in life. We spoke about the nature of success, and she realized that what she was really talking about was teaching them how to become responsible adults who have a playful approach to life, who enjoy life, and have work that excites them.
Imagination is perhaps the most powerful human ability. It allows us to create simulated realities that we can explore without giving up access to the real world.
a close examination of adult stream of consciousness demonstrates that the pretend-real process is a lifelong aspect of human thought. We continually make up story lines in our heads to keep the past, present, and future in context.
Even in our society, grandparents are often the ones who have the time to really listen to children. Parents are often busy trying to mold a child into what they think he or she ought to be. Perhaps grandparents are the ones who see us for what we really are and help us grow into that.
All of the patterns that induce states of play are present and remain important for growth, flexibility, and learning. Unfortunately, we often forget this or choose not to focus on play’s necessity under intense pressure to succeed. No Child Left Behind is a perfect example. While it is an admirable (and even necessary) goal to make sure that all children attain a certain minimal level of education, the result has often been a system in which students are provided a rote, skills-and-drills approach to education and “nonessential” subjects like art and music are cut.
In a sense, they are being prepared for twentieth-century work, assembly-line work, in which workers don’t have to be creative or smart—they just have to be able to put their assigned bolt in the assigned hole.
Without play, Panksepp suggests, optimal learning, normal social functioning, self-control, and other executive functions may not mature properly.
This research has led him to propose a connection between a lack of rough-and-tumble play and ADHD. In fact, based on their findings that “abundant access to rough-and-tumble play” reduces the inappropriate hyperplayfulness and impulsivity of rats with frontal lobe damage, he and his colleagues propose that a regimen of social, boisterous play might be one way to help children with mild to moderate ADHD control impulsivity
Some may cheapen these methods by saying that these teachers are just entertaining students, but what is wrong with that? As long as the lessons are learned as well or better than they would be with other methods. Play isn’t the enemy of learning, it’s learning’s partner.
As we grow older, we are taught that learning should be serious, that subjects are complicated. These serious subjects take serious study, we are told, and play only trivializes them.
Sometimes the best way to get the feel of a complicated subject is to just play with it.
That’s why kids often learn computer systems faster than adults—they aren’t afraid to just try stuff out and see what works, whereas adults worry that they will do something wrong. Kids don’t fear doing something wrong. If they do, they learn from it and do it differently next time.
Authentic play comes from deep down inside us. It’s not formed or motivated solely by others. Real play interacts with and involves the outside world, but it fundamentally expresses the needs and desires of the player.
All evidence indicates that the greatest rewards of play come when it arises naturally from within.
It used to be that self-organized play was all kids did. Most adults over the age of forty-five will likely have memories of exploring on their own, through puddles and fields or on city streets.
Parents and educators, corporate leaders, and others need to become convinced by the evidence that long-term life skills and a rewarding sense of fulfillment—and yes, performance—are more the by-product of play-related activities than forced performance.
True mastery over a lifetime comes from one’s internal play compass. When parents and teachers push too hard to get kids to perform, children do not experience feelings of competence and do not create from within their own sense of mastery.
sports can be a potent training for a playful life during the teen years. Sports provide a ready peer group, united in a common goal. Sports teach how to struggle against adversity, even when the odds seem insurmountable. Adult-organized sports don’t have to be antiplay when they are done right.
Athletics provide feedback about one’s own physical talents, and what it feels like to participate, win, lose, and be fair.
William Bowen, a former president of Princeton University, once did a large statistical study to determine if the special preferences that athletes got on college admissions (lower SAT score cutoff, extra financial aid) were unfair. Bowen was surprised to find that, as a group, the athletes actually did better financially after college than other students, a fact he attributed to the drive and energy that sports cultivate.
the opposite of play is not work—the opposite of play is depression.
Our inherent need for variety and challenge can be buried by an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Over the long haul, when these spice-of-life elements are missing, what is left is a dulled soul.
We need newness of play, its sense of flow, and being in the moment. We need the sense of discovery and liveliness that it provides. We also need the purpose of work, the economic stability it offers, the sense that we are doing service for others, that we are needed and integrated into our world. And most of us need also to feel competent.
Play is nature’s greatest tool for creating new neural networks and for reconciling cognitive difficulties.
When we play, dilemmas and challenges will naturally filter through the unconscious mind and work themselves out.
As with many things in life, often the problem is not the problem, the problem is how you react to the problem.
The paradox is that a little distance from a problem, a sense of perspective, a realization that it really matters little in the end if people choose Huggies over Pampers for their kids, can be one of the most important factors in success.
The beauty of sports is that it embraces the paradox of seriousness and play.
Sometimes the play may be a friendly competition between teams. Or it can be a very private sort of play-game that the rest of us never see—a personal competition, for instance, to see how fast we can write a memo, or how many things we can check off our to-do list that day.
Work matters, but we often allow day-to-day events at work to give us more anxiety than they are worth.
Getting oneself into a play state, however, masks the urgent purposefulness and associated anxiety of work, increasing efficiency and productivity.
Creative people can be simultaneously hardworking and goof-offs. They can have a laser focus on a task, but keep the wide view that lets them see how something fits into the big picture.
Creative people can escape into the imagination, but also are firmly grounded in reality. Creative ideas are often those that bring together ideas from different domains or fields.
Creative people know the rules of the game, but they are open to improvisation and serendipity.
Much of play takes place in an imaginative world, but is also firmly grounded in reality. In fact, play promotes mixing fantasy and reality.
As Isaac Asimov said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny . . .’ ”
We can get pretty far through sheer will-power, and some people have prodigious powers of perfectionism, self-denial, and suffering. Ultimately, though, people cannot succeed in rising to the highest levels of their field if they don’t enjoy what they are doing, if they don’t make time for play.
Without some sense of fun or play, people usually can’t make themselves stick to any discipline long enough to master it.
Every athlete I have ever met often feels that they just don’t want to start that workout. But when they do, the reason they love what they are doing comes back to them pretty quickly.
A crisis of some sort is not uncommon for successful people at midlife, but the age for this midlife meltdown has started coming earlier and earlier.
they too suffer the same crisis of the soul that comes from pouring every moment of your time and every ounce of your being into others’ expectations.
I have experienced too many cold and hostile reactions to play when people listen to a full rendition of its nature and importance, and they slowly realize that they have lived a life deprived of spontaneous play. They are struck by the fact that what love they’ve had in their lives was conditional and based on their performance. To fully realize this in one sitting as an adult can be overwhelming—too much to bear. The reaction is often an intense (but unconscious) defensiveness, a denial that the fullness of one’s life has been wasted. The resulting emotion is usually anger at the deliverer of the message.
Joy is our birthright, and is intrinsic to our essential design.
To really regain play in your life you will need to take a journey back into the past to help create avenues for play that work for you in the present. This can be done through a complete play history, or it can be done by simply sitting and remembering (and often visualizing) something you did in the past that gave you the sense of unfettered pleasure, of time suspended, of total involvement, of wanting to do this thing again and again.
Remember how that made you feel? Remember and feel that emotion and hold on to it, because that is what’s going to save you. The memory of that emotion is going to be the life raft that keeps you from drowning. It can be the rope that lifts you out of your play-deficient well.
Barbara loved her husband and naturally wanted to spend recreational time with him, but she realized that her husband’s heart play was never going to be hers.
Those who played together, stayed together. Those who didn’t either split or, worse yet, simply endured an unhappy and dysfunctional relationship.
Humans use play signals, too. When we greet each other, we smile and look at the other person with “soft” eyes—looking directly but not staring. We might also raise the eyebrows or lift the chin quickly in greeting.
These are an invitation to the other to mirror our expressions, to engage in a ritual bonding with the promise that we will progress to an emotional bonding. And the spirits of safety and trust are communicated nonverbally.
People trying not to look threatening will make no eye contact, will stare at a spot on the wall or some object, trying to look busy and inconspicuous.
If we lived in a world without play, all public adult interactions would model those of subway sitters and elevator riders. It would be a pretty grim world to live in. What play signals do is invite a safe, emotional connection, if even for an instant.
Really making emotional contact with people, inviting an emotional closeness either in a casual situation or long-term relationship, requires that we open ourselves to them. It requires that we not put up defensive walls and that we accept others for who they are. Then we can invite others to engage in play.
She has students pair off about two feet apart and look at each other for three solid minutes. A lot of people find this really uncomfortable.
It’s very personal. But the teacher urges people to get over themselves, to stop thinking about how they look and feel, and instead to think about the other person.
Teasing, as I’ve noted before, is a common way to probe the boundaries of a relationship and address power issues. In general, men engage in teasing more than women, and the teasing can seem rough to someone who is not used to it.
The boundaries for such heckling are normally general cultural norms, but body language during the encounter usually primes the teaser to keep it up, or back off.
Jokes, when they contain unrealistic exaggeration, can allow us to safely address real fears without making them seem like accusations.
Without the various forms of social play we would find it very hard to live together. Society would either lock up like an overheated engine, or we would have to evolve a rigid, highly organized social structure like that of ants or bees. Play is the lubrication that allows human society to work and individuals to be close to each other.
Take play out of the mix and, like a climb in the oxygen-poor “death zone” of Mount Everest, the relationship becomes a survival endurance contest. Without play skills, the repertoire to deal with inevitable stresses is narrowed. Even if loyalty, responsibility, duty, and steadfastness remain, without playfulness there will be insufficient vitality left over to keep the relationship buoyant and satisfying.
Play also accentuates attraction.
The arts are indicators of emotional intelligence, but they also produce emotional intelligence. They help us grow and adapt.
A strong play drive is unspoken evidence of fitness to reproduce.
Romantic love, that is to say, the “deeply in love” form of love, is a super-strong force. The idealization and rapture of romantic love has addictive qualities that are similar to drug addiction.
Without play, romantic love naturally tends to drift into territoriality, possessiveness, dominance, or aggression. The emotion of romantic love is to feel totally in sync with the lover, but when lovers go out of sync the fall can be hard.
While being in love is intensely pleasurable, it can also be so intense that it is painful.
Studies have shown that being love-sick can cause actual physical sickness.
Stepping out of a normal routine, finding novelty, being open to serendipity, enjoying the unexpected, embracing a little risk, and finding pleasure in the heightened vividness of life. These are all qualities of a state of play.
In order to keep things hot, people have to keep growing, keep exploring new territory in themselves and each other. In short, they have to play.
Adult play is not much different. The competitive urge may make us want to dominate the competition in the short term, but if this happens all the time the game gets boring.
The natural urge to find balance in play is also the reason that people root for the underdog and against teams that win all the time.
When someone is domineering, aggressive, or violent, they are not engaged in true play, no matter what they are doing.
There is an agreement that participants be “good sports” who can shake hands and respect each other after the contest is decided. The desire for fair play probably runs very deep in our genes.
Adults who are healthy and psychologically well balanced will enjoy playing, but after a while they will grow tired of whatever game they are playing and do something else. People who are using the games to escape some other psychic pain, however, will not stop playing.
In life, it’s often not clear if you are “winning” or “losing.” Gaming offers a very controlled world in which victory and defeat can be clear and unambiguous.
On the whole, three-dimensional physical and social play is a “better” form of play, just as a balanced diet is better than one full of sugar hits.
incorporate play earlier and more consistently in my professional life, and to set clear boundaries about working too hard.
A “mean” girl who operates by psychological intimidation and exclusion is the equivalent of a boy bully, both of which interrupt the flow of play.
In both cases, I think that we adults are too quick to step in to stop such play. We see the potential for small hurts, hear the squeals and grunts that sound to us like loss of control, and we force the wrestlers to stop. We feel uncomfortable with the gossipy talk and we reflexively step in to make sure that kids are being fair. By doing so, we stop kids from learning on their own and from each other.
Teasing varies by culture and individual temperament, but some form exists everywhere, especially when people are emotionally close.
teasing allows people to go to the edge and just beyond, saying things that may or may not be hurtful if said straight out, offering all parties an escape if they have gone too far. Such teasing is a learned-through-play social skill, with culturally understood boundaries. If the intent is to enlighten or just have fun, teasing and joke-making are great elements of social bonding. If the underlying motive is to put down or humiliate the recipient, it’s not healthy.
Play, by its very nature, is a little anarchic. It is about stepping outside of normal life and breaking normal patterns. It is about bending rules of thought, action, and behavior.
Some people use this quality of play as cover for sadistic or cruel treatment of others. “Hey,” they might say if others object, “you can’t take a little playful hassling? What’s wrong with you?” This is not a dark side of play, because it is not play. It’s an attack under a false flag. It is an attempt to dominate, demean, or control while hiding behind the bulwark of our cultural assumptions about play being non-threatening.
Adults may joke about something that’s a little too personal. But when our interactions are based on a foundation of caring, these hurts are corrected and avoided in the future. Bending rules and pushing through limits should happen within the realm of play. They aren’t the dark side of play—they are the essence of play.
When sports and games are played as they should be played, organized for the fun of it, kids learn that cheating is wrong and that playing the game the best you can is the thing that matters
ONE OF THE HARDEST things to teach kids is how to make it past difficulty or perceived boredom to find the fun.
Here are some initial questions: When have you felt free to do and be what you choose? Is that a part of your life now? If not, why not? What do you feel stands in the way of your achieving some times of personal freedom? Are you now able to feel that what engages you most fully is almost effortless? If not, can you recall when you were able to experience such times? Describe. Imagine settings that allow that sort of engagement. Search your memory for those times in your life when you have been at your very 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 kinds of play disappear from your repertoire? Have you discovered ways of reinitiating lost play that work for you now in your life? Are you able to imagine and feel that the things you most desire and enjoy are really the things that you ought to have? Why so, or why not? How free are you now as you play with your spouse or your family? Or do you treat them as an extension of a dutiful responsibility?
The world is full of humor, irony, joy, and objects available for aesthetic appreciation. The trick is allowing yourself to open up to those influences, to see humor in virtually all situations.
You have to give yourself permission to improvise, to mimic, to take on a long-hidden identity. Let your body respond to lessons learned from nature but long suppressed. You can’t be truly open to spontaneity if you don’t feel comfortable testing novel ways of expressing yourself, pushed along by the pleasure of the action. Play is exploration, which means that you will be going places where you haven’t been before.
“It sucks being a beginner again,” he told me. “But unless you are willing to do that, unless you can let yourself feel okay about going through the awkward stage, you can’t grow.
One of the quickest ways to jump-start play is to do something physical. Just move.
We are alive when we are physically moving.
Fear and play cannot go together. Take a look at your environment and look at where you are unsafe.
Recognize if your body is tight or tense in certain situations.
developmentally we all need “secret spaces” in which we can be safely alone and give ourselves over to needed fantasies if we are to adapt to a challenging world. Find your own secret space.
Practice play. Understand what type of player you are and find ways to engage in your play.