Why It's Time To Add More Play To Your Life
Basically, why am I not more fun?
Since writing about community last week, I’ve been thinking about what my life may be lacking. I know, I know, super healthy way to while away the days!
But it hasn’t actually been a morose exercise, more of a how-could-I-improve-things-without-needing-to-do-much vibe. What small changes could I make to better support myself through the dark winter days, and by extension, perhaps you as well?
A lot of my conclusions were fairly obvious – more time in nature, less doom-scrolling etc etc. So far so Insta-wellness. But something unexpected also came up for me: play.
The work I do stems from my belief that our ancient brains need help coping with modern life. That they’re not yet evolutionary equipped to deal with the hues of modernity’s daily stresses and demands. That while we’ve made incredible advancements, we’ve also lost important things along the way.
Such as play.
Play is a behaviour that has evolved in humans over millennia; it’s something we need in our lives. We play to learn, to develop motor skills, to enhance social bonds, to relieve stress, and much more. Play bolsters the pre-frontal cortex of our brain (the bit that helps with problem solving and critical thinking). It releases dopamine into our system, flooding us with happiness hormones. It helps us make sense of the world around us.
Children literally evolve through play. As anyone who has watched a young child knows, toddlers don’t learn numbers by rote. They pick up blocks, throw them, pick them up again and maybe count them, before throwing them again.
Children also use play to connect, and not just with their peers. When my daughter wants to bond with me, she doesn’t ask to sit down and have a chat. She asks me to play with her. She’ll reveal way more about her day at pre-school through imaginative play than she ever will in the car on the way home (me: “how was your day?!? What did you get up to?!?” her: ten second pause, “Good”, resumes silence).
But if I actually listen to her request of “Shall we play shop/doctors/castles?” once we get home or later that evening, it’s in that magical, immersive space that I’ll discover what she’s been doing and how she’s been feeling.
Yet here’s the thing, I don’t think I’m a natural play-er. (Better word, anyone?) I’m not boring, I hope. I have a fiendish sense of humour and I’m good at parties, mainly because I’m a journalist and so will happily talk to anyone. But I’m not the one starting a weird party game, I’m the one asking you to tell me what’s important to you in life.
Basically, I’m kinda serious. I’m self-conscious and controlled, and while I don’t freak out – anymore – when things don’t go my way, I like to know what’s going on. I’m not good at just letting go and seeing where life takes me.
None of which gels particularly well with what I think of when I hear the word play. Freeform exploration; being silly and free and uninhibited. Of not giving a sh*t.
This week is half term, which has given me ample opportunity to practice responding more enthusiastically to my daughter’s calls for play. I took her away for 2 nights to Cornwall, where I had a tiny bit of work to do but otherwise could just focus on her. (At home, I obviously have more competing demands on my time: work, cook, tidy, feed the baby, run errands, check my phone…)
And what I’ve realised is that play makes me feel a bit uncomfortable, as I don’t know what to do. (I’m not alone – most of us lose our sense of play as we grow older, relegating it to the realm of childhood.) I found that I really had to re-train my brain to stay open to the randomness of her games. That I had to focus in order to keep up with her enthusiasm, imagination and complete lack of self-consciousness.
While I was struggling with this – why am I not more FUN?! – I looked up the definition of play, and came across a quote from Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play in the US (yes this really exists!) He says: “Play is the state of mind one has when absorbed in an activity that provides enjoyment and a sense of time is suspended”.
Okay, this I can get on board with. I don’t need unreserved enthusiasm; I just need to enjoy.
And this is I think, like anything else, a matter of shifting ones perspective and of practice. Honestly, I find it hard sometimes to play with my children without also wanting to check my phone (anyone else?) but I also (no surprises!) find it more rewarding for us both when I don’t. And the more I don’t check it, the more opportunity there is for me to be immersed in their play, to enjoy. And the more I do that the easier it becomes and so on…
Writing about play has made me think of a night away last summer with two of my oldest and closest girlfriends. We’ve been friends since we were two and lived together at boarding school in Israel, where everything was play. And on this trip away, yes, we did stuff that women in their late 30s do – drank wine, had serious chats about life, compared skincare routines – but we also played, seamlessly reverting to our younger selves in the blink of an eye. In the swimming pool, instead of doing laps, we raced, did handstands and laughed so much we could barely breathe. It was liberating, and it fills me joy still, just thinking about it now.
Often when we talk about improving health and wellbeing, it’s all reduction – stop smoking or drinking or eating mars bars for breakfast. Which are all, let’s be honest, fun things to do. And if those fag-breaks or sugar-highs serve as deep stress-relievers in someone’s life, then taking them away without finding a good replacement can leave that person emotionally worse off than before. Untethered, as such.
So, whenever I coach, I try to focus instead on what we can add to our lives. Things that can be incorporated easily, without feeling like another f*cking thing to add to a never-ending To-do list.
Maybe this week that something is play?
So, how can we all add more play into our – serious, adult – lives? How can we prioritise play that isn’t dependent on a child instigating it, but rather something that any of us could embark on by ourselves.
The first thing that springs to my mind is yoga. Although you’d never know it from half the classes, there’s a lot of room in yoga for creativity, for immersion, for not taking yourself too seriously. For experimenting, for trying and failing.
A bit of crowdsourcing and someone else suggested team games – not something that appeals to me (requires too big of a time commitment) but I like the suggestion.
Does creativity count? Painting, playing an instrument, video games, fashion, sex, dance, food? I think so, yes. We can play with anything that brings us joy.
The National Institute for Play gives guidelines for developing the “adult play muscles”, which include considering how you like to play and what sounds fun to you. They also have a list of Play Personalities to choose from (the idea being once you know yours it’ll be easier to figure the best form of ‘play’ for you.)
But if that all still sounds like far too much to add to your plate, (Who has time to do a personality quiz!? It’s not 2013, thanks Buzzfeed), maybe it’s as simple as adopting a play mentality? Of viewing the world as a fun place to be (despite what the news may be showing us!), of looking for enjoyment in the everyday. Of not taking ourselves so seriously. Of giving ourselves a break. Allowing ourselves to just enjoy.
Any play suggestions of your own to share? I’d love to hear :)