Why playing is so important — especially as we age.
Playing for keeps, why play needs to become a priority for all!
As we get older we tend to prioritize mundane tasks like laundry, spring cleaning and paying bills. Often this leaves very little time for ‘fun’ and even when we find that time we tend to be drawn towards easy fixes for ‘fun’ like structured games, parties, meet ups. Spontaneity in fun is a decreasing asset for the adult population and there are many reasons we should try to reverse that.
Play is found everywhere across the animal world, it is essential to the development of a child’s brain and it helps wild animals prepare for a dangerous and unpredictable world. Play is inherently unpredictable, in fact it is that facet of it that makes it so essential to development. Without our sensory systems being challenged with new and difficult stimuli they would not develop to their potential. Studies show that infant animals deprived of play and/or play with other infants do not develop key social competencies. In today’s fast paced, digitally tactile world this is becoming apparent in younger generations that may not have the same opportunities to go outside and play face to face as much as previous generations. Many instead engage via digital screens at an alarmingly increasing rate.
What are we losing with this lack of physical interaction?
In the past several decades we have seen not only a decrease in face to face free play but an increase in ‘anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism have increased sharply in children, adolescents, and young adults.’ (Gray, P. 2011). Gray (2011) goes on to contend that these two things are related and not just coincidence, they give reasons why play is so fundamentally essential for us;
Through play we;
- Develop intrinsic interests and competencies
- Learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules
- Learn to regulate emotions
- Make friends and learn to get along with others as equals
- Experience joy.
The benefits listed above are closely associated with executive cognitive functions developed in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. Early stimulation of the areas that control our executive functions aids in a greater ability to utilize them in later life.
The physical and psychological benefits of play are very apparent in both scholarly and observational study. But how do we connect the dots to look at the full spectrum of benefits that adults can garner from re-introducing play into their lives? To reference our fast paced digital world again, being able to disconnect and spend time immersed in an activity that has no apparent purpose, goal or consequence is a great way to reduce stress. Being totally caught up in a single ‘game’ or activity has similar benefits to traditional meditation. When you are totally immersed in something your mind is not inundated with worries about work or relationships, it does not add in the concerns of the future or current finances, it is totally focused on that one activity.
Meditation does not have to be sitting cross legged with your eyes closed listening to calm music or in silence. It can be anything that allows you to tune out distractions. For me that is sometimes practicing ‘Kali’, a Filipino Martial Art that involves swinging sticks around, typically at one another! Practicing this art has same impact for me as attempting to sit down and meditate traditionally (something I am not very good at!), but only if the right elements are in place. It has to challenge me, there has to be discovery, there has to be potential for failure so that my focus is on point, but failure does not result in a consequence like losing rank or getting shouted at! I talk more about the cognitive benefits of this art here
Using play in this way could seriously decrease stress from modern society, while also increasing happiness and joy. Its important to distinguish between being immersed in play and being immersed in work though. Sometimes they are conflated, sometimes you cannot tell whether someone is working or playing. This is where the definitions I describe in this previous article become key to recognize, internally and externally. A group of friends could be kicking a ball around together and it could be considered ‘play’ whereas a team kicking it around during practice for the big game could be considered ‘work’ yet they are doing exactly the same activity…understanding the construct of play helps determine which is which;
“Play is a self driven, enjoyable activity which someone participates in freely with no pressure, consequence or result.”
Play can also be anything from traditional games and activities to math, reading, science, art, dance etc…It is the elements of play that are most important, not the method in which it is done.
I have distinct memories from playing Lego’s as a kid for what seemed like days on end….not just building from the package or instructions but creating entire worlds from what I can remember as being a vast collection of Lego pieces at my disposal! This kind of deep immersion, of doing something that has no serious repercussions or results allows our brains to ‘de-fragment’ or ‘de-clutter’, to run on idle for a while and it is during these times that truly creative and spontaneous inspiration happens. How many of you have been lying in bed trying to go to sleep and have come up with fantastic ideas or thoughts on a problem at work, or the book you are writing or blog article!?
My best ideas happen during a relaxed mind state. If I try to say to my brain….
“right, listen up brain we are going to produce fantastic, inspirational thoughts at 3pm next Thursday”
Do we think my brain will cooperate? No!! The brain needs much more subtle coercion than a calendar appointment to function at its highest level.
This is how play can benefit us in our day to day work also. As we know our brains develop utilizing aspects of play because play creates environments that enhance creativity, problem solving, analytical thought etc… All things that are essential in today’s working world. Google is famous for recognizing this, and other companies are starting to realize that we are not in the industrial revolution anymore and investing in the resource that is their workforce will produce far greater successes in the bottom line than anything else.
Tapping into the creative genius that is the human mind on a large scale is without a doubt the future of human potential, play can be an integral part of how to capture it! Traditional corporate training and development has been constantly trying to engage workers to learn the key vision statements, posted motivational goals or to adhere to the policies and procedures of the workplace. But it is obvious right now that we need people to disengage more, not engage 24/7. By allowing the freedom to work where and when they want and encouraging creative thought through their famous 20% time, Google has opened up the potential of their exceptional (albeit very carefully selected) staff. Products like Gmail, Google Maps and Adsense (which is responsible for a large part of Google’s revenue) were inspired and thought up through 20% time.
Establishing a play environment at work could be the best way to solve large or small problems in the workplace. Make the problem solving process malleable and consequence free, create places where people can feel comfortable to try out anything without fear of reprisal, repercussion or being made fun of! This has a much greater chance of discovering a plausible solution than if everyone works from their same little box or job description all the time.
All humans have varied and sometimes hidden talents, allowing them to blossom in your workplace can make all the difference…not only for problem solving, but for retention also. This article explains many of the costs from losing an employee, retention is big business when looking at the bottom line and creating a community in your work place where all members feel valued and appreciated is something that incorporating the ideals of play could help with.
If this sounds like a good idea to you while reading this and you are in charge or HR or training and development, please take a step back and think about the larger why….don’t attempt to put your employees in a room for an hour with some games, that is not what I am suggesting! Slowly incorporate the idea from top down that its to get up and goof around a little to shake the cobwebs out, then perhaps introduce a space that is solely for that purpose. Then maybe build up to having play days where no work needs to be done or perhaps that entire day is dedicated to fixing one employees or teams problem, everyone from the cleaners to the CEO hangs out together playing around with the problem from all angles.
Don’t take the shortcut and just buy some games. Do your own research, learn about play and what it truly is, then create a culture around it, not a policy. Play is essential for health, it is important for society and it can improve your work and your bottom line….but not if it is used as an agenda. Play is unchangeable, it is free, it cannot be tamed or boxed in, it cannot be defined specifically, limited or restrained…but with a little effort it can be found in everyday life, if we let it in 🙂 #PlayHappy
Hopefully you can join me when I talk about Playing Happy at the 1st Annual Well Beyond Summit on March 20th. I will be digging in to ‘play’ a lot more including opportunities to play; drums, martial arts, movement, lego’s and art projects! Registration can be found here!