Over Memorial Day weekend, my neighbor threw herself a 30th birthday party (Happy birthday, Brooke!). There was a BBQ and a gathering of friends, but the real highlight of the party was a Bouncy House. And before you reread that first sentence, the answer is yes — I did say 30th birthday.
We flung ourselves around for hours. Games spontaneously arose: who could touch the ceiling? Who had the longest broad jump? Could we somersault and stick the landing? Land in an L-sit, and then bounce back up to our feet? We chased each other, Duck Duck Goose style. We learned that you bounce highest when you’re exactly out of phase with another jumper (you’re down when they’re up). It was glorious.
Just like being a kid again? Perhaps better, because as adults we had the experience of having left that place and returned with new eyes. Amidst the joy of being fully present in our bodies, tucked in with the warmth of connecting to others without agenda, we felt an upwelling of gratitude, an appreciation for how precious was the experience.
When did you stop playing?
If your answer is “I haven’t,” then congratulations! You’re in the minority, and in my opinion you’re doing it right.
Many of us believe that we as we grow up, play is supposed to be replaced by work. We take on responsibilities, and life becomes serious business. But what would it look like if our definition of healthy adulthood included making time for such moments of playful abandon? As playwright George Bernard Shaw put it, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
Is work in fact the opposite of play? Notable play researcher Dr. Stuart Brown (and how is that for a great job title?) argues that the opposite of play is not work; it’s depression. With 1 in 4 or 5 women and 1 in 8 to 10 men experiencing major depression in their lifetime, perhaps making space for play should be a public health priority.
If you’ve ever loved your work (and I do hope you have), then you’ve experienced what creativity pioneer Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the flow state: moments of complete absorption in your task. In the flow state, challenges are met with appropriate levels of skill; if we were thinking about it, we’d notice a sense of mastery. Yet the point is that we’re not thinking about it – in the flow state, the ego falls away, time falls away, and “every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.” According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow state is essential to happiness. As humans, we not only like but also need to solve problems and to immerse ourselves fully in our experiences.
In the above definition, flow requires us to possess the skills necessary to meet the challenges ahead. When our skills are lacking, we feel anxiety rather than flow. So how do we gain the requisite skills? Through play.
Learning through play: or, seals have it figured out
If you know me or have read my bio, you know I volunteer at the New England Aquarium and conduct behavioral research with the seals and sea lions. On alternate Tuesdays, I spend a lot of time watching Northern Fur Seals and recording notes about their behavior. Given that the colony contains a number of juveniles, I spend a lot of time watching baby animals play (tough job, I know).
We used to have two young males, Flaherty and Leu, now living together in balmy Seattle. Visitors would come by and see them “jousting,” or posturing at each other with open mouths and gruff noises known as chuffs, and would ask if they were fighting. Nope, not fighting – just playing.
As adult males in the wild during mating season, Flaherty and Leu would choose a prime piece of real estate and defend their territory against competing males. Any females in the area would be theirs for breeding. It’s not exactly a feminist bedtime story, but I don’t make the rules. Stick with me here.
If a male waits until he’s old enough to breed to learn how to defend his territory, it’s likely to go badly for him – read: serious injury, and certainly no passing on of the genes. So, as a juvenile, he and his friends play Breeding Ground. They wrestle, they tumble, they posture, they cede power back and forth – all in a friendly environment with mom watching to be sure nothing gets too far out of control. By the time a male fur seal is old enough to breed, he’s gained mastery over the necessary skills (or else he’s learned that it’s not a good idea for him to challenge the dominant males).
Across the animal kingdom, humans included, individuals learn to function as adults and learn to relate to each other through play.
Play vs. practice
So what is play exactly, and how is it different from practicing? Practice is intentional – we repeat particular drills or exercises with the specific goal of improving. In contrast, play is unstructured, creative, driven only by curiosity and moment-by-moment desire. Though we do get better at the skills we perform during play, any sense of purpose takes a distant backseat to the simple pleasure of the play itself.
Play has infinite variety, including but not limited to word play, social play, constructive play, and the type of play exhibited in the Bouncy House – body play. Defined by Stuart Brown as “a spontaneous desire to get ourselves out of gravity,” body play enables us to enjoy our bodies, to discover new patterns of movement, and to gain mastery over our physical environment. Body play boosts vitality and helps us stay physically healthy.
There is a time and a place for both practice and play, and flow state probably requires a healthy dose of both activities. In my experience, it’s generally easier for adults to acknowledge the need for and make guilt-free time for practice; hence, this ode to play.
Bringing it all together
Play staves off depression; it gives us a sense of mastery; it drives innovation; it bonds us together; and it both generates happiness and helps creates the conditions necessary for flow-induced happiness in our other activities.
So when was the last time you experienced joyful abandon? Moved for the sake of enjoying the feeling of movement? If as an adult you find yourself anxious about rather than energized by the challenges ahead, if you feel undernourished and overstressed, if you’ve forgotten what it’s like to delight in your body, perhaps you’re overdue for a play date. Alone or with others…last one to play is a rotten egg!