By Dayna Mason
When we were children everything we did was play—activities done for the sheer pleasure of doing them, not to achieve any particular outcome. We used our imaginations and laughed easily. As adults, many of us have lost some of our ability to imagine and have become practical, goal-driven, and more concerned with playing by the rules than enjoying ourselves.
While play is vital to childhood development, it is equally essential in adulthood for wellbeing, adaptability, connection, happiness and innovation.
Play is necessary for survival and innovation
In the last 50 years, while opportunities for children to play have declined, studies have shown indicators of anxiety and depression in children have increased.
The founder of the National Institute for Play, “play researcher” Dr. Stuart Brown cites a play study involving two group of rats to support his belief that “Play is pretty important for our survival.” The first group was allowed to play. The second group was prevented from playing. “All rats were then presented with a cat odor-saturated collar. Both groups fled and hid. But the rats that were allowed to play slowly began to explore the environment again. The rats that weren’t allowed to play never came out of hiding, and they died.” He believes the opposite of play is not work, but depression.
We are designed to play throughout our lives, not just in childhood.
Imagination fuels innovation. When ideas spark inspiration, the in-between state that leads to action is imagination. All of our greatest innovations started as an idea explored in the imagination—our “mental playground.”
Albert Einstein famously recognized that “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world.” And Carl Jung continued that thought with the belief that “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.”
What is play?
According to the play researcher, Dr. Stuart Brown, “The state of play is biologically definable as a separate state, as separate as sleep and dreams from our regular consciousness.”
Play is voluntary, pleasurable, and engaging. It’s fun, whatever fun means to you. It’s less about the activity and more about how good you feel doing the activity. For example, someone enjoying a game of poker with friends. Fun. That’s play. Someone addicted to gambling playing poker solely for the jackpot. Not fun. Not play.
Everyone defines play differently.
Discovering our unique play style
Over a decade ago I saw a counselor to help me work through some challenges around loss. In the second session I was asked to role-play talking to myself as a child. I couldn’t do it. It seemed too ridiculous. So, the counselor gave me an assignment to help me breakthrough what he believed was my inability to play.
Tea with teddy
The table is prepared. The gold teapot filled with coffee (my preference over tea) and matching teacups sit on their little saucers. I purchased a stuffed animal for the occasion (an item I would not own otherwise). A teddy bear, soft and fluffy, but no ribbons, clothing or anything cutesy. A basic bear. After much deliberation, I named her Maddy.
The doorbell rings.
“Hi! Meet Mr. Moose. He’s very excited to meet Maddy and have some tea.” My friend Kathy, who volunteered to help me with this exercise is ready to go. I’d thought her help would somehow make it easier. But I now realize what a colossal mistake I’ve made. I’m embarrassed for both of us.
Kathy pours coffee into the teeny-tiny cups.
“How are you, Maddy?” she says in a low-pitched moose voice.
Am I supposed to respond? What do I say? This is insane. I can’t do this.
I stand up from the table.
“I have to do something upstairs. I’ll be right back.”
As I stand in my bedroom, above the dining room, I hear Kathy continue to talk to the inanimate objects. She asks them if they would like some tea. She responds as if they’re asking her questions. I’m paralyzed with fear. But I can’t just leave Kathy down there by herself. She’s here for me. Why is it so easy for her to play, and I feel like I have a gun pointed at my head?
I make my way downstairs and sit at the table. I pick up the teapot and pour some coffee into one of the cups. I say nothing. Kathy continues to carry on the conversation for all the participants. My heart is racing.
“I’m done, Kathy. That’s going to have to be good enough. Thanks for helping me with this. I don’t know why this is so awkward for me.”
“No worries. I had fun.” She smiles and winks at me.
After Kathy leaves, I sit at the table and contemplate what just happened. What is wrong with me?
My analysis is interrupted as the front door opens and my teenage son walks around the corner and into the dining room. He freezes in the doorway and stares at me. He glances from me to the teddy bear to the shiny dishes on the table.
“What’re you doing?” he says.
I laugh at how absurd this must look and explain that this was my counselor’s idea. I describe what happened with Kathy and that I feel like a complete failure.
“What’s the big deal?” he says, “A pretend tea party is kind of dumb, but so what? It’s really not a big deal.”
“It’s not a big deal for you, because you enjoy being silly. That’s the problem, pretending to have tea with some stuffed animals shouldn’t feel like impending death.”
Compassion washes over his face and he takes a seat at the table. He raises the teapot.
“What’s in here?”
“It’s supposed to be empty. That’s why it’s called pretend.”
He goes to the sink and empties the pot and returns to the table. He pours imaginary liquid into each of the cups.
“Drink your tea,” he says.
I still feel uncomfortable, but some of the panic has subsided. I lift my cup and tilt it to my lips.
“See, that’s not so difficult, is it?” he says.
“No, it’s not as bad as earlier. Thank you.”
My son and I sit quietly, surrounded by a scene that belongs in a 4-year-old’s bedroom. If this is play, I’d rather do without. That was my last “assignment” and counseling session.
Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago. In doing research for this article I recalled the “tea party incident” and decided to attend an improv class to experiment with silliness and play. I only made it through one of the two hours of class before I became so uncomfortable that I grabbed my coat and made an excuse to leave early.
So, why do these situations make me feel so uncomfortable? Because, as a good friend put it, “Silly isn’t a fit for you.”
Observational, topical and organic situational humor are a fit for me. Not pretending. Not absurdity. But wit and deep meaningful conversation are a fit for me. My immense anxiety was a result of ignoring my need to be true to myself. I didn’t have an inability to play, I had an aversion to doing something ridiculous that wasn’t fun for me in the name of play.
What constitutes play and fun for us and makes us laugh is as distinctive to each of us as we are unique. All around us there are opportunities to make that discovery: in art, movies, comedy, music, roughhousing with pets or children, dressing up in costume, participating in sports, playing board games, doing puzzles, dancing, walking, running, hiking, traveling, painting, drawing, coloring, gardening, writing, etc.
Play brings people closer together and strengthens existing bonds. It can also help with conflict resolution and introduce freshness to a languishing connection. Flirting is a great example of humorous play in a relationship.
The key is to discover what is a “fit” for you.
Get in touch with your playful nature
People who have a playful personality—spontaneous, creative, outgoing, and cheerful—are better at dealing with stress, more successful academically and more attractive to potential partners.
Getting in touch with our playful side helps balance the seriousness of life, heightens our senses and awakens the adventurousness we felt as children. Through creativity and new ideas, play can bring about transformational changes in our lives.
The etymology of the word play goes back to the 1580s and is rooted in the word “frolic” (isn’t that a great word?), which means to jump for joy.
Let’s be playful and get in touch with the childlike part of ourselves. Let’s find time to frolic (did I mention I love that word?)—to play—and reconnect with dreams we had as children, improve our intellect and engage in creativity that facilitates innovation and connects us with others.
TED Talk: Play is more than just fun
Funny Ideas from Inherentlyfunny.com:
- Call someone and tell them you can’t talk right now.
- Stare at the word “concentrate.”
- Park as close as you can to the gym (oh wait, this isn’t funny, this is a real thing).
- Go to a phone store, hold out a Banana and say, “I’d like to upgrade to an Apple.”
- When someone knocks on the door, knock back.
- Throw ice while singing “Let it Go.”
- Next time you’re in a heated argument with someone, challenge them to a “dance-off.”
9 types of humor, according to the data scientists at eHarmony:
- Physical also known as slapstick, involves a strong physical element. This is the most popular type.
- Self-deprecating is commonly favored by stand-up comedians, where they depict themselves as the butt of the joke.
- Surreal is derived from illogical events, absurd situations or nonsensical themes (aka “silly”). Monty Python movies are an example of this humor.
- Improvisational takes place typically between comedians where they attempt to create a skit completely unplanned. The TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway? is an example of this humor.
- Wit or wordplay involves twisting language in order to achieve humorous results and is most popular with the educated. Puns are an example of this humor and may make us groan more than giggle.
- Topical relies on comedians talking about or making a mockery of current events and trends. The TV show Saturday Night Live is an example of this humor.
- Observational is the ability to poke fun at everyday life and activities.
- Bodily has everything to do with bodily functions. The movie Dumb and Dumber is an example of this humor.
- Dark has an edge and is the least popular type. There are often depressing or unusual undertones that make it a little unsettling as well as entertaining. The TV show Curb Your Enthusiasm is an example of this humor.
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