Let Us Play:
Childhood may be over, but playtime doesn’t have to be.
Play has a terrible reputation in America. In this country, play is something exclusively for children.
One can fully appreciate Puritanism’s death grip on the American psyche when examining our current views of play for anyone other than kids: A waste of time, a trivial pursuit, a distraction from productive activity.
Remember the grasshopper and the ants? The moral of the story, at least by the time it reached me in translation, was unambiguous: You play, you starve. Yes, maybe all work and no play make Jack a dull boy, but all play and no work make Jack a bum.
Even I, who considers himself as far removed from puritanical thinking as it is possible to be – even I, a retiree whose only work obligations are self-imposed – still berate myself for wasting hours on social media or guitar playing or other hilarity instead of affixing my proboscis to the grindstone.
But I come here to praise play, not to bury it. History, common sense, and even science demonstrate that the stiff-shirted, humorless puritanical view of play is not only wrong but dangerous. In truth, play is a basic, instinctive human characteristic. Moreover, it is essential to our well-being and survival.
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It’s even in our DNA, says Isabel Behncke, a primatologist who studies bonobos, our closest living relatives on the evolutionary tree. (You may recall bonobos as the “make love not war” apes for their cooperative tendencies and their practice of resolution conflict with heaps of sex.) Behncke cites the playful behavior of bonobos as a gift from evolution that we humans share. “Play is not frivolous. Play’s essential,” she says. “In order to adapt successfully to a changing world, we need to play.”
What makes play a bit slippery is that while play can happen through many activities, what defines play is how the individual experiences those activities. A game of basketball can be play for one person and work for another. Likewise, some people delight in writing or in climbing mountains, activities that to others are drudgery. To Sherlock Holmes and hundreds of detectives in his wake, solving the mystery is play, and hence, “The game is afoot.”
“It’s a process, not a thing,” says Scott Eberle, former editor of The American Journal of Play. To Dr. Stuart Brown, the author of Play and founder of the National Institute for Play, It is “a state of being” that is “purposeless, fun, and pleasurable.”
Brown says we need play “to keep our brains flexible, ward off depression, sustain optimism, and sharpen our social-emotional skills.” When adults play, it keeps them open to novel approaches, better at working with others, and building the emotional resilience to ward off stress.
Through thousands of interviews and observations, Brown has identified eight distinctive play personalities. Most people are a blend of several, but usually one personality type is dominant.
1. The Collector thrills to have and hold an interesting collection of objects or experiences. What he collects may be anything from coins and stamps to wines, antiques, or exotic travel experiences.
2. The Competitor loves to play games always plays to win. He always keeps score.
3. The Creator/Artist finds joy in making things, from painting and pottery to sewing and gardening. Their idea of a fun time could be decorating a house or inventing a tool.
4. The Director enjoys making things happen by planning and executing scenes and event. They thrive on organizing people, places, and things.
5. The Explorer is driven to search the world physically or emotionally to satisfy their curiosity and their desire to know. They may be explorers in the traditional sense, or fearless researchers.
6. The Joker is the class clown or the court jester who thrives on foolishness. His play may involve practical jokes or stand-up comedy.
7. The Kinesthete likes to move and is happiest when dancing, swimming, or running. When he plays competitive sports, his focus in not on winning but on movement and how it feels.
8. The Storyteller uses imagination to create new worlds. He may tell stories through film, novels, plays, or cartoon, or he may feel play by becoming engaged in someone else’s story.
These archetypes open up the scope of what play can look like.
Play can take dozens of forms. So if you’re feeling a bit rusty in this area and could use some inspiration, we’ve hit the mother lode: An incredible list of ideas for age-appropriate (or age-inappropriate) fun.
So do not – repeat – do not let any latent puritanism drag you down. Set free your inner child and engage in playful behavior. Because really! What better time than now to let go of your serious side and engage in play that lights you up inside?