Play emanated so naturally from our evolving, childish minds, engaging in activities with an innate sense of curiosity and adventure. As a child, our un-touched psyches observed and engaged with the world with a beginner’s mindset, seeing everything as an opportunity for exploration and Play. Organically, we’re called to look, touch, taste, smell, listen, and experience the world through this lens, until somewhere along the journey to adulthood, we lose this essential skill, we lose the art of Play. Parents prematurely teach us to neglect and suppress our instincts out of fear of noise, chaos, danger or disruption, thereby kicking off the tragic process of growing up.
When we adopt a playful attitude, we perceive everyday occurrences with a fresh, childlike inquisitiveness, transforming ordinary scenarios into entertaining, cognitively stimulating experiences. It’s crucial that we respect and support children's innate desire to play, examine our assumptions, and not only provide suitable environments for their exploration but also intentionally create opportunities for us to play too. We invite you to immerse yourself in the realm of Play and uncover new ways of engaging with life.
"We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing." — George Bernard Shaw
Looking at its roots, the word Play traces back to the Old English terms 'pleg(i)an' and 'plega', referring to ‘brisk movement’ or ‘dance’ - activities too often neglected in our modern, frenzied adult lives. Dr. Stuart Brown, doctor, psychiatrist, clinical researcher, author and the founder of the National Institute for Play, believes that when attempting to define Playfulness, explaining it in detail will snatch it of its magic, as it does for humour.
Having dedicated much of his career to the study of human Play, Dr. Brown speaks regularly to Fortune 500 companies and groups across the country on its significance in our lives. He argues that the best way to understand Play is to connect with the emotion it evokes, and has pinpointed a few essential components that constitute it. Genuine, free Play is self-controlled and self-directed, voluntary, inherent, and entirely improvised. Characterised by enjoyment, imagination, freedom from time and a diminished consciousness of self, this type of activity is essential for the development of independence and overall well-being in children.
“Sometimes running is play, and sometimes it is not. What is the difference between the two? It really depends on the emotions experienced by the runner. Play is a state of mind, rather than an activity. Remember the definition of play: an absorbing, apparently purposeless activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of self-consciousness and sense of time. It is also self-motivating and makes you want to do it again. We have to put ourselves in the proper emotional state in order to play.” — Dr. Stuart Brown
Psychology professor Peter Gray, with extensive studies on the matter in his pocket from a biological and evolutionary perspective, asserts that all animals, including humans, engage in play, yet we are the biggest Players of the animal kingdom. Not only do we play more, but our play continues into adulthood, setting us apart from other mammals. He argues that free play is indispensable for children’s social, emotional, physical and cognitive development, and plays a crucial role in learning, propelling exploration and improving memory retention.
Indeed, Playfulness serves as a catalyst for brain growth. Studies show that play is one of nature’s most sophisticated methods for a complex brain to develop. It teaches children how to organise their consciousness without external input, match challenges with their skills independently, and builds their capacity to respond to adversity, manage emotions, and cope with stress. These nurture their adaptability and flexibility, key components for growth and development.
"Play isn't the enemy of learning, it's learning’s partner. Play is like fertiliser for brain growth." — Dr. Stuart Brown
But Play isn’t just for children. Its benefits go beyond childhood and ensures continued development in adults. On the physical level, incorporating joyful, non-repetitive activities with a sprinkle of pleasure through physical activities, sports, creative games or even humour, fosters an active lifestyle, infusing our routine with vitality and mobility. It triggers the release of endorphins, our body’s innate elixir promoting a sense of well-being and temporary pain relief.
It also creates a balanced foundation for long-term mental and emotional health, offering experiences of unpredictability and novelty which enhance our resilience to adversity and stress, cultivating flexibility and adaptability. Furthermore, it promotes brain function by challenging our minds (through activities such as chess or puzzles for example) and reinforcing patterns in the brain that optimise memory retention and learning while countering stress and depression. Such games have also been proven to prevent dementia, neurological issues, and even heart disease.
Dr. Stuart Brown perceives play as basic a need as sleep, neither of which were getting enough of. His research not only shows increased risks of major health risks, such as depression, a decreased immune system, and other stress-related diseases, to those living devoid of play, he also discovered higher rates of violence and crime in cultures lacking play. In essence, play is a rejuvenating antidote to many of the health and societal issues we face today.
Going further, when we surrender to Play’s rhythm, our perception broadens, allowing us to form novel connections and discern unseen possibilities, attributes often linked to creativity and genius. A source of relaxation and mental stimulation, Play fuels our imagination, captivating our attention and inviting us to retreat from everyday worries and responsibilities. As a consequence of the game’s design and novelty of the situation, we shift out of our default mode of processing information. This practice of adopting new vantage points, if repeated, enables us to draw new relations and distinguish opportunities previously unseen, illuminating previously hidden paths in plain sight.
“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” ― Richard Lingard
On another note, play has a beneficial influence on our social interactions. A 2011 study linked playfulness in adults to desirable characteristics such as humour and tension-relieving ability in a group. Adopting a playful mindset allows us to socialise more spontaneously and express ourselves authentically. A practical tool to break the ice with strangers and forge new relationships, it plays as an impetus for connection, invigorating exchanges with newness and wonder. It also serves as a balm to heal resentments and navigate through conflict, releasing negative feelings and healing emotional scars. By fostering a sense of empathy, compassion, safety and trust, it paves the way for friendship, teamwork, and intimacy. Infusing playfulness and humour into our daily interactions can enhance not just romantic relationships, but also our connections with colleagues, family, friends, and strangers.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, playfulness also plays an interesting role at work. In our relentless pursuit for more success and power, we’re easily thrown into a dulling of our tasks and lack of purpose, with routine responsibilities becoming mundane and monotonous. Basically, work devoid of play becomes a tedious grind. Finding joy in work and making time for play is essential for mastery in any field and steeps us in meaning, passion and drive.
“This is the real secret of life - to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realise it is play.” ― Alan Watts
As mentioned by Dr. Stuart Brown, playfulness is a learned art, a mindset that can be adopted, a skill that can be honed. It’s a muscle we can train just like any other part of our body. When we consciously choose to recognise life as an omnipresent playground, we can look at adversity in the eye as if it were a game or challenge to be solved. It introduces an element of lightness into everyday situations and circumstances, reducing the intensity of conflict and increasing the meaning and pleasure within our work and relationships. Play isn't merely about participating in an activity, but immersing oneself in the right mindset. So — Shall we play?