"We do not quit playing because we grow old; we grow old because we quit playing." While it's unclear exactly who coined this phrase, it's a sentiment worth taking to heart.
Play is an essential part of life. But what exactly is it? Like art, we know it when we see and experience it.
Doctors and scientists like Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, define play in order study it and talk about it. Brown calls play “a state of being” that is “purposeless, fun, and pleasurable.” He says, “[Play] is something done for its own sake. It’s voluntary. It’s pleasurable. It offers a sense of engagement. It takes you out of time.”
It's Not Just for Kids
While the time we allow children to engage in unstructured free play has been declining for more than half a century, the benefits of free play are well recognized. It is crucial for childhood development and helps kids learn what interests them most in the world. It helps them learn to make decisions, follow rules, and solve problems, as well as handle a wide range of emotions. It is, itself, a source of happiness.
As adults, just because we’ve "grown up" doesn’t mean that our development as human beings is done. Many of the same benefits that children derive from play are available and important for us as well. Play helps relieve stress, maintain or improve brain function, boost creativity, and improve our connection with our friends and family. It can help us improve our social skills and ability to cooperate, as well as heal emotional wounds.
3 Ways to Approach Play
1. Check Your Attitude
Exactly what you do for play is less important than the attitude you have while you do it.
Competitively participating in a sport or game, even very seriously and vigorously, can be play when done with an attitude of enjoyment and detachment from the outcome. Yoga, meditation, and breathwork have an element of seriousness to them, but when approached with an attitude of engaged fun, they become play.
2. Play to Learn
Learning new skills is a good opportunity for play. In fact, approaching new skills or interests with a sense of play can be a crucial pedagogical tool. Wildcrafter Dina Falconi says one of the best ways to learn about plants is simply to observe them with a playful attitude.
She says, “You don’t have to pick the plant at first. You learn the language of plant identification. You may not even know the plant’s name for a year or two. Eventually the ecosystems starts to speak to you. It’s very poetic.”
3. Play Like a Poet
Play is indeed poetic. It's clear that play is fun and pleasurable and has powerful purpose in our lives as a whole, but that purpose is not an external reward. This is very similar to poetry—one way to play with words to reflect our experience.
Play and poetry both help us make sense of our lives. The motivation to write poetry is intrinsic. We write not for external reward, but because we see it as a way to explore, learn, and express something about the world and our place in it.
Play happens for the same reasons. If you find yourself no longer having fun at whatever you're doing, check to see if you're looking for some benefit "out there." If so, remind yourself of the internal rewards and watch the pleasure of play return.
© 2015 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies