For the Love of Play

Zeitgsty
10 min readSep 13, 2023

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Image made with DALL-E

What do you like to do for fun?

Simple enough question–right? Well, not so much. At least not for me. This guy on TikTok sums it up best.

Now, if you’ve clicked on this piece, there’s a good chance you’re eyeing me suspiciously. Don’t worry, I’m not about to pull a bait-and-switch on you. Today, I’m veering off my usual analytical, “brain cells required” path. Because, honestly, sometimes diving into the abyss of analysis feels like drowning in a vat of molasses. It’s thick, dark, and super heavy.

Today, we’re getting into a topic we all abandoned somewhere around high school: play. Yep, you heard me. Play. And no, I’m not talking about adult recreational leagues or your “professional development” sessions. I’m talking genuine, silly, let-your-hair-down kind of play.

You’re probably conjuring up an image of kids in a playground right about now. The dictionary defines “play”, as a noun, as “activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation, especially by children.” Especially by children. Hmm, a tad exclusionary, don’t you think? Well, we’re about to give that dictionary a run for its money. Because I’m on a mission to erase that child’s bit. I’m a firm believer that if we allowed ourselves to rediscover play, the world wouldn’t feel like it’s one spilled coffee away from total annihilation.

And how, pray tell, did I stumble upon this revolutionizing, not-so-ingenious idea? The same way any self-respecting, sane adult does these days: My therapist told me to. Yep. The doc said it’s time to play, and who am I to argue with a professional?

See, play isn’t just about horsing around. It’s about slowing down, grounding ourselves, and remembering that we don’t have to exist in a permanent state of chaos. We shouldn’t feel like a cat in the bathtub at every point in our days. Believe it or not, you have the divine permission to slow down, breathe, and maybe even build a sandcastle or two.

So, buckle up, dear reader. We’re about to dive headfirst into why play matters, the myriad forms it can take, and how you can reintroduce it into your overstressed, overtired life. And trust me, by the end, you won’t even remember what an “adult” is “supposed” to act like. 😝

Why it matters (hint: it’s not just child’s play)

Ah, childhood. A time when the minutes felt like hours, skies seemed bluer than blue, and ice cream — let’s just say it was the ambrosia of the gods. Who wouldn’t want to tap into that unabashed euphoria once more?

While you might think play is reserved for kiddos or perhaps the occasional frivolous adult, think again. Quite a few heavyweights in the world of seriousness also get their fair share of play. Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron, for example, took a virtual flight with some Angry Birds after arduous parliamentary sessions. David Beckham, on the other hand, discovered therapy in Legos after a harrowing jet crash. And Barack Obama? Our former president? He’d casually shoot hoops or tee off for relaxation during his time in office.

Apart from allowing you to revel in sheer pleasure, what’s the whole fuss about play? Play is essentially like that magical elixir that fuels your creativity, amplifies your emotional wellbeing, and sharpens your problem-solving acumen.

As Dr. Stuart Brown of the NIFP (National Institute for Play, a real thing I swear!) eloquently spilled to NPR, “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. And the act itself is more important than the outcome.” Basically, play isn’t about achieving a medal or a certificate. It’s not even about any tangible output (for once). Rather, it’s about enjoying the damn activity!

Still not sold on adult playtime? Let’s break down some benefits, scientifically vetted, just to keep things legit:

Stress be gone: Play can trigger the release of those jolly little chemicals called endorphins, giving you a buzz that isn’t coffee-induced. A 2013 study found a lovely correlation between play and enhanced life satisfaction, with playful adults living more active and joy-filled lives. Oh, and play can even aid in reframing situations positively. Basically, it’s like therapy without the hefty bills (or for some of us, tears 🥲).

Brainpower boost: Games like chess, puzzles, or, hell, any activity that has your neurons firing can stave off memory issues and amplify cognitive functions. Moreover, play can release BDNF, a substance vital for brain cell growth. Let’s hear it for activities like yoga or recreational sports that also pack a punch in the brain-boosting department too!

Mingle and jingle: Sharing a chuckle or a playful moment can foster deeper connections, brimming with empathy, compassion, and trust. As a 2011 study points out, playful adults possess an array of admirable traits, such as easing group tension and supporting collective creativity. So, introverts, extroverts, and ambiverts — take note.

The elixir of youth: Mr. George Bernard Shaw hit the nail on the head when he said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” A 2019 study even showcased the multi-dimensional benefits of play for type 1 diabetes patients, including mood elevation and enhanced communication about their condition.

Magic outside (how bout’ that?): Outdoor recreation has its set of golden benefits: enhanced attention span, relaxation, and reduced anxiety, to name a few. Plus, it’s a free ticket to decrease blood pressure and fend off depression.

Vitality’s doorway: NIFP (again, a legit institute) champions play as the prime gateway to vitality. Play is not just rewarding but is a master at fostering optimism, perseverance, and empathy, all while weaving a strong sense of community.

In essence, play is frivolous fun. But that’s precisely what makes it so special. It’s an essential ingredient in the concoction of a well-lived, happy, and vibrant life.

Embracing your inner child (or clown…or explorer…)

Image made using DALL-E

You, yes you, with the adult-y posture and the “I’m-so-responsible” attitude, I’ve got some breaking news for you. Ready? There are approximately a gadjillion ways to play. Shocked? Me neither. The silver lining here? There’s no wrong way to do it. As long as whatever you’re doing is pumping up that happy meter, consider it as play.

In his book “Play”, Stuart Brown M.D. presents an earth-shattering idea that while most of us “mature” adults are shrugging off the notion of playtime (because, you know, we have “serious” stuff to do), play has actually been the unsung hero behind monumental breakthroughs in sciences, arts, and humanities.

Brown quips that the essence of innovative thinking, the kind that breaks barriers and redefines fields, can very well be likened to thinking outside the box. And in truth, “thinking outside the box” is just a fancy term for good ol’ play.

Remember when we used to create whole worlds out of Legos or perform dramatic monologues to our very captive audience of stuffed animals? That’s the spirit we’re trying to recapture.

To guide you in your playful journey, let’s explore some “adult play styles”, shall we? Also, if you’re feeling a tad lost in the world of play (no shame in that), there’s a neat quiz you can take. My result? The creator. No big surprise there.

But what are you? Share it in the comments!

Here’s a peek into the playground:

The Joker: Oh, the quintessential class clown. Picture a real-life jester. This play style graces our world with extroverts who can’t help but bring a smile to every face. Your TikTok feed is probably full of them. In terms of activities, think improv classes, stand-up comedy, or even meme-making.

The Kinesthetic: Movement is their jam. It’s about celebrating every leap, twirl, and stretch. So, how about some trapeze classes, dance-offs, or a rock-climbing spree?

The Explorer/Investigator: Knowledge-thirsty and always on a quest. They seek to understand the universe, one discovery at a time. These folks enjoy a good mystery novel, scavenger hunt, or a mysterious, moonlit night.

The Competitor: For them, the game’s the thing. The thrill of the chase, the victory dance, the sweet taste of triumph. If this is your style, let that inner competitor free for heaven’s sake! How? A board night, trivia competition, or spirited game of laser tag all fit the bill (so long as you win).

The Director: They find euphoria in organization. From directing plays to orchestrating grand events, they’re the unsung heroes behind the curtain. Coaching a local team, planning a community event, or maybe starting a new club are some ideal activities for this group.

The Collector: The curators of the extraordinary. Their eyes catch the beauty in the mundane, and their collections tell a thousand tales. Collectors likely enjoy wine tasting, antique hunting, or even curating their very own digital playlist.

The Storyteller: Every incident is a tale waiting to unfold. They weave magic with words and draw listeners into their narrative realm. A personal blog (hey, that’s what I’m doing!), podcast, vlog series — these types of activities are likely to spark fun.

The Creator: The visionaries. Whether with a brush, chisel, or a blueprint, they craft and mold their dreams into existence. So if you’re thinking the likes of sketching, DIY crafts, home gardening, or even bread making–you’re on your way there.

Now, before you go pigeonholing yourself into one playstyle, remember it’s not a one-size-fits-all. Maybe today, you’re The Joker and tomorrow, The Explorer. It’s the buffet of life. Try everything, but hey, don’t force-feed yourself.

How to incorporate play into your busy, adult-ish life

Let’s address the elephant in the room. Slowing down. Ever heard of it?

In this hyper-connected, frantic-paced, do-it-all-yesterday world it can feel akin to extracting a molar without anesthesia. And if you’re one of the select, special few with ADHD (like yours truly) slowing down might seem as appealing as listening to a 3-hour lecture on the history of grass. But, oh, the sweet, glorious magic of playtime — how can one resist its siren call? Not to mention, what would we be without it?

Image from The Sims

If the very notion of reacquainting yourself with play sends your inner overachiever into panic mode, take a deep breath. We’re taking this leap together, right? For what it’s worth, I’ve been down this road — a fast-mover like myself — and found these shiny nuggets of wisdom to rekindle the spirit of play.

I know, I know. The web’s brimming with advice: “Get some fresh air! Meditate! Talk to a pet rock!” But let’s try something a tad more… actionable, shall we?

Embrace intentional pauses: Instead of acting on autopilot, revel in intentional pauses. Studies suggest that these thoughtful breaks can not only amplify our cognitive clarity but also augment the impact of our actions. As it turns out, teachers who pause post-questioning witness a remarkable improvement in their students’ reasoning prowess. So, why not treat our overtaxed brains with a bit of tender pause-love?

Bask in binaural beats: Got ears? Great! Now, treat them to some binaural beats. These are when 2 slightly offbeat tones play a mind-soothing symphony in each ear. Science says that they not only reduce our cortisol levels but can also perk up our overall performance.

Foster a playful mindset: This doesn’t mean you need to prance around in clown shoes. But a sprinkle of light-heartedness can work wonders. Got worries? Apply the 5X5 rule — will this bother you in 5 years? If not, then why spend more than 5 minutes brooding over it? Also, if stress has its talons in you, try the progressive muscle relaxation technique, a creation of the brilliant Edmund Jacobson in the 1900s.

Protect your playtime: Just as you’d schedule a meeting or a dental appointment, carve out a sacred slot for playtime. And once etched in your calendar, guard it like a dragon guards its gold. Non-negotiable.

Dive into new experiences: A comfort zone might be a lovely place, but it’s a barren land for growth. Exploring fresh experiences can jazz up your emotional spectrum, making you more joyous and less meeeh.

Let your mind wander: Allow your thoughts to travel to the wild territories of your subconscious. Yes, it might occasionally churn out dreamy gibberish–think middle of the night waking up to that “brilliant idea” type weird–but such uninhibited thought expeditions are invaluable.

Ditch the self-criticism: Journaling (not the tabloid kind) has been shown to work most effectively for self-criticism. Plus, wallowing in self-critique can seriously put a damper on your productivity and happiness quotient.

Travel back in time to childhood: What ignited that spark of sheer joy in young you? Revisiting those memories might be the compass pointing to your playful north.

Think of this entire endeavor as a gym session, but for your mind, spirit, and creativity. Sure, you can ignore play and court chronic stress with its boatload of nasty side-effects. Or, you can sketch a plan and embrace play with the fervor of a kid let loose in a candy store.

Your move. 🤨

Play like no one’s judging (because, honestly, they’re probably not)

Remember when you were a kid and play was as natural as breathing, and you weren’t worried about your credit score or that deadline lurking around the corner? If you’re struggling to bring play back into your life, don’t fret. It’s only because society’s made it seem like adults and play go together about as well as pineapple on pizza (controversial take, I know).

But once you strip away those layers, or more aptly barriers, and experience the sheer, unabashed fun, you’ll wonder why you ever pushed playtime to the sidelines.

As you shuffle off to your next big-person responsibility, I’ll leave you with this: Your days might be numbered, but your zest for life doesn’t have to be. The next time you feel the weight of adulthood pressing down, remember there’s a playful child inside, just waiting for a chance to jump in a puddle or two.

Why deny them the pleasure?

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Zeitgsty

Zeitgeisty = your compass to the culture cosmos. 🔭 Ideal for the marketer's muse, the journalist’s journal, or if you just love being culturally in the know.