I read psychiatrist Stuart Brown’s book on Play with a growing sense of inadequacy and unease. Here he was, after decades of clinical research and 6000 case studies, setting out all this evidence on the importance of play not just for children but also for adults. According to Brown: “Nothing lights up the brain like play”.
But I don’t play, I thought as I read. I shuddered at the simple thought of indulging in some activities others like to call play... I’m not sure I even like play.
It all changed when I got to the description of “Exploring” as a mode of play. For some, Brown says, “Exploration becomes their preferred avenue into the alternative universe of play – their way of remaining creative and provoking the imagination”.
This I recognized; I finally felt fully at home.
The previous year I had a three week holiday in Finisterre, a small fishing village in Spanish Galicia, with my German partner Manolo. Manolo and I had met in Finisterre eleven years earlier, and we often returned. Indeed, for months on end Manolo, a writer, would live there, preferring its peace and climate to the bustle and dependable rain of our home in Dublin.
I love Finisterre, but I had not enjoyed this holiday. I came home feeling unsatisfied. The weighing scale was showing I had eaten too much. I knew I had drunk too much. I had read rubbishy books – the sort that are absorbing when you are in them, but afterwards you can’t remember anything of what you read. The overwhelming feelings during the holiday were boredom and a lack of satisfaction.
Now, reading Stuart Brown’s book, it dawned on me what had gone wrong. Manolo likes routine: he is happy to walk the same beach twice a day, every day; he loves going to familiar restaurants, where he knows the menu off by heart, and delights in deciding in advance exactly what he will order.
Reading Stuart Brown I realized for the first time the role exploration played in my life, and I could see clearly why this particular holiday had done so little for me.
Fast forward twelve months to August in Finisterre again – and this time I had one of my best holidays ever. The changes were small and subtle – but they made a massive difference. We tried different restaurants and took taxis to go to different beaches. I planned in advance the reading and thinking I wanted to do and brought good books with me. As I say, there was a world of a difference! And what was great was that Manolo, whose style of play doesn’t usually call for adventure, went along and enjoyed the changes, even if he would never have instigated them of his own volition.
Of course Exploration is not everyone’s dominant mode of play. Brown cites eight modes of play, including Competing, Storytelling and Joking (see them all here).
The reason I think this story is worth sharing is that being aware of how I like to play has made a significant contribution to the quality of my life.
While researching this blog I came across an article (which I won’t cite for reasons that will become clear in a moment) on 10 ways to play more as an adult. The 10 ways included:
- Set the goal of playing more.
- Set a fun time – just like you do for exercise.
I kid you not! Play had become another thing on our overflowing and endless list of ‘to-dos’. Yet another thing to stress about, to feel inadequate about not doing.
Brown, who defines play as “purposeless, all-consuming, and fun”, not surprisingly has a completely different approach. In a Ted Talk he appeals to us “to engage not in the work-play differential – where you set aside time to play – but where your life becomes infused minute by minute, hour by hour, with body, object, social, fantasy, transformational kinds of play”.
I love that idea of a life infused with play!
Much as I love this idea, there were occasions writing this blog when I found myself thinking play was frivolous, that I should be writing about something more serious, something more worthy. Old conditioning dies hard! My resolve about the value of writing and thinking about play was greatly strengthened by these three inputs:
1. Stuart Brown asserts that the opposite of play is not work – it’s depression!
2. No less an authority than Einstein claimed that “Play is the highest form of research”.
3. C.G. Jung says, “Without this playing with fantasy, no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of imagination is incalculable.”
So, if we give ourselves permission to consider a life infused with play, how might we take playful steps towards such a life? Here are some of the ideas that come up:
- What did you LOVE doing when you were six or seven years old? What made you laugh then? Play around with ideas about how you could incorporate the essence of your childhood play into your life now.
- Hang out more with children and animals.
- Have a problem or challenge at work? Instead of “working” on finding a solution, consider how different it might feel if you lightened up a bit and approached it as “playing” with different solutions.
- Spend time with people who are playful.
- Check out 40 more ideas for play in life at The Laughter Online University – and no, that title is not a joke.
Finally, a thought for those of you who think you are too old to play:
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
George Bernard Shaw