POWER OF PLAY
Why embracing play into adulthood and beyond can lead to happier and healthier people, relationships, and communities
WHAT IS PLAY?
“Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.” - Diane Ackerman
Play is an elusive concept —constantly changing shape and taking new forms. The act of play is hard to define because it’s as unique as the individual. We all play in different ways (movement play, imaginative play, rough-and-tumble play, etc.). One form of play may feel like bliss to some and work to others. You may know someone who gets pure joy from knitting for friends and family and another person in your life who finds it a certain kind of torture. But no matter what form of play you prefer, each shares the same properties according to Psychologist Dr. Stuart Brown, leading researcher in the field and founder of the National Institute for Play.
Brown has spent decades working to understand, define, and promote the power of play. According to his book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Dr. Brown states that the properties of true play are that it is purposeless, voluntary, has inherent attraction, allows for freedom from time, results in a diminished consciousness of self, has improvisational potential, and has continuation desire. In other words, “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,” says Brown. Through his research, we have come to understand that true play is a state of mind rather than an activity - it’s a process that helps take you into the state of play, which Brown argues is where the magic happens. Being open to a moment of joy, finding awe in small occurrences, losing yourself in the moment, seeing something in a new way, and enjoying the unexpected can all bring you into a state of play.
true play is a state of mind rather than an activity
Brown and others have brought new focus, in the field of psychology, to the study of play —proving its evolutionary purpose and identifying its many benefits. Humans aren’t the only animals to play, but we are the most playful. As a species, we possess the highest capacity for neoteny —the retention of juvenile behavior into adulthood— and nature has made us this way. Through thousands of years of evolution, we have retained and prioritized the ability to play throughout all stages of our lives. Play is a tool that nature uses to shape our brains, making us smarter and more adaptable over time. It has helped to foster empathy and given us the ability to create complex social groups. More recently, it can be found at the heart of humans’ creativity and innovation. And, “its extension into adulthood may have helped to build cooperation and sharing among hunter-gatherers beyond the level that would naturally exist in a dominance-seeking species,” says Dr. Peter Gray, Psychologist and researcher of the life-long value of play. Without the forms of social play that we have developed, humans could have evolved our social structures around rigid and highly organized systems like that of ants or bees. Play has made us into the complex, richly-layered, and amazing species that we are today.
The magic of play is that it is universal and its code is written in our DNA. Play doesn’t have to be taught; we are born speaking the language of play. Anyone can do it —no instructions necessary. And, it has infinite variations, evolving with and through us. So, if play is so easy and so important, why don’t we all play more?
“It is a happy talent to know how to play.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
As adults, we are taught to reject our play instincts, and we slowly adopt the idea that play, as something that is done for its own sake and without purpose, is unproductive, a waste of time, and even a sign of laziness. As we grow up, we are taught that it is natural to accept the responsibilities of adulthood and leave play behind as something that squarely belongs in childhood. Our modern existence continues to push us further and further away from play and all of its benefits.
As Adam Grant, Organizational Psychologist, so playfully puts it, “we live in a culture that worships at the altar of hustle and prays to the high priest of grit.” We measure our success, progress, and value by how long we work and how much money we make and not by things like our relationships or quality time spent with others —all things that make life worthwhile. We need to see that “sometimes making a living and making a life point in opposite directions,” as novelist Pico Iyer so eloquently reminds us. There is more to being human than being an adult.
there is more to being human than being an adult
Another barrier to the benefits of play is a world oversaturated with technology. Much of today’s technology is replacing the benefits of true play with guilty pleasures and harmful obsessions. We are distracted, overly connected, and pushed towards excess. We are more likely to spend hours in front of our TVs or computers than immersed in the kind of joyful and revitalizing play we did as children. The social media platforms that espouse connectivity encourage external validation rather than the healthy, personal growth we get from play. Our brains are constantly being overtaxed, switching from task to task and screen to screen. Our attention spans are being pushed to the brink, and we are in desperate need of a reset button. True play is that reset button, and there are opportunities to find play all around us. The trick is being open and receptive to these moments so that we can bring play back into our adult lives and reap the many rewards.
NOT JUST CHILD’S PLAY
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” - George Bernard Shaw
Play isn’t just for kids; adults need play too. And, the benefits of embracing play throughout one’s life are boundless —ranging from physically improving the systems within our bodies to strengthening mental agility, emotional balance, and relationships.
Our bodies on play
Our bodies reward us for play. Playing in adulthood has been shown to boost our immune system, reduce stress, and give us energy. Studies have shown that people who continue to play throughout their lives are less likely to suffer from dementia and other neurological problems. They are also less likely to get heart disease and other maladies that aren’t directly connected to the brain. And, since playing is likely to bring on laughter and smiles, it activates the oculocardiac reflex, which stimulates a major nerve connected to our body’s relaxation response when there is gentle pressure applied around the eyes (think laugh lines), resulting in lowered heart rate and blood pressure. Regularly incorporating play into our daily life can change the way we think and feel, leading to positive thinking and optimism about our future. Harvard research scientists at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health have connected optimism to longer lifespans. Their research has found that more optimistic people live 11 to 15 percent longer than less optimistic people. In addition, play restores our vitality because it activates diverse regions of the brain, stimulating the body. Playing a game can be more energizing than a cup of coffee, and even longer bursts of energy can come from combining physical activity and just-for-fun novelty, making you more productive during and outside of states of play.
Our brains on play
Our brains grow and improve through play. Although the majority of our brain development happens in childhood and adolescence, our brains never lose the capacity to develop. Play actually triggers the secretion of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a substance our body needs to grow new brain cells. If that wasn’t enough, research has shown that play promotes neurogenesis —the growth of new neurons. That means that playing can actually provide brain growth by creating new connections in the brain. And, even after these new neurons, neural pathways, and neural networks are developed, the act of play tests for and strengthens the best connections. For example, play directly strengthens the networks in the brain that are linked to positivity. So, play can train the brain to be more positive, more efficient, and healthier. Stronger and better neural networks can also be attributed to improved memory and problem-solving skills. Through his research as a neuroscientist and psychobiologist, Jaak Panksepp, has shown that play stimulates nerve growth in the amygdala, where our brain processes emotions, and in the prefrontal cortex, where we process executive functions like memory and task-switching. This means that we develop better decision-making capability and emotional maturity when we play more. We can look at play as a kind of happiness training where we can actually rewrite neural pathways to a happier life.
Our emotions on play
We are happier because of play. At its most direct, playing releases endorphins —the chemical that creates a feeling of well-being and happiness— which counteracts the negative effects of cortisol, a hormone triggered by stress that can lead to physical pain, anxiety, and depression. Play and the endorphins it releases bring about positive emotions like gratitude, awe, and hope. When we experience these emotions on a regular basis, we have a more positive outlook, we feel more at peace with ourselves, and we feel more in tune with the world. And, these aren’t just temporary effects; they are lasting —building on themselves, growing, and reproducing— touching all aspects of our lives. The power of play is so strong that we don’t always need to be in a state of play to feel its positive effects. Just thinking about a joyful play experience or being reminded of one by seeing someone else in a state of play can trigger those feelings of delight and happiness. These moments of play that connect us to others, foster gratitude, and help us see ourselves as part of a larger whole offer a more sustainable kind of happiness that is more immune to hedonic adaptation —the tendency to quickly return to one’s standard baseline of contentment.
Our relationships on play
We are more connected through play. According to field Ethnologist and Primatologist, Isabel Behncke, “play is foundational for bonding relationships and fostering tolerance.” It also builds trust between individuals and groups —creating a space to grow empathy, compassion, and intimacy with others. Game Designer Jane McGonigal agrees, saying that “playing a game together actually builds up bonds and trust and cooperation. We actually build stronger social relationships as a result.” Biologically, laughing together releases oxytocin, the chemical that helps us feel connected to another person. In the book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing, by Bronnie Ware, the number four regret is people wishing they had stayed in touch with friends. They didn’t wish they had spent more time working or getting ahead, instead they wished that they had prioritized fun, real, and memorable moments with the people they loved. By embracing play into adulthood, we can remove barriers between ourselves and others and strengthen our connections, leading to the more meaningful and lasting relationships we won’t regret.
POWER OF PLAY
“When enough people raise play to the status it deserves in our lives, we will find the world a better place.” - Dr. Stuart Brown
Even in small doses, the power of play goes far beyond the physical, mental, and emotional benefits laid out above —play has the power to improve each of our lives, all of our communities, and the whole world.
Entrepreneur, Steve Keil, sees the far-reaching benefits of play and feels that its adoption on a national scale can save his home country of Bulgaria. In his TED Talk, A manifesto for play, for Bulgaria and beyond, he calls for a play revolution to pull Bulgaria out of last place in innovation, health care, reading, math, science, and happiness. He understands that the fulfillment, happiness, creativity, and sense of productivity that we get from play can help us adapt to the challenges of the future and solve the problems of today and tomorrow.
We can see this vision of a better world come to life in other parts of the animal kingdom as well. In her TED Talk, Evolution's gift of play, from bonobo apes to humans, Isabel Behncke, describes how the Bonobo, a relative of the Chimpanzee, have infused their lives with play to create “a highly tolerant society where fatal violence has not been observed yet.”
Statistician and happiness researcher, Nic Marks, worked with the UK Government’s Office for Science on the Foresight program to identify five positive actions that can be taken to improve well-being. This is what they came up with: connect —invest in and build your social relationships, be active —move, go outside, dance, etc., take notice —be mindful of yourself and the world around you, keep learning —stay curious and open, and give —generosity, altruism, and compassion are all hardwired to the reward mechanism in our brain. All of these actions can be achieved through play.
Play isn’t one-size-fits-all —each type of play has its own benefits. According to Dr. Brown, movement play “lights up the brain and fosters learning, innovation, flexibility, adaptability, and resilience”, rough-and-tumble play “helps develop and maintain social awareness, cooperation, fairness, and altruism”, and imaginative play “allows people to step back and see both the emotional and the factual elements of a problem.”
play has the power to improve each of our lives, all of our
communities, and the whole world
On a personal level, the power of play spills over into other aspects of our lives outside of the state of play. When we find our true play, we find a way to connect with the key parts of ourselves that get lost in the responsibilities of adulthood. Not only does play allow us to express our joy and deeply connect with the best parts of ourselves and others, but it can build a path to a new self, one that is more in tune with the world. It’s not a break from life; it is essential to it. Our outlook in life is shaped by our experiences, and, if we fill those experiences with as much play, joy, and mindfulness that we can, we grow better brains, increase our happiness, find fulfillment, and create meaning. Just think of the positive impact more playful humans could have on the world.
Together, play is where we explore the possible. On the fields of play and in the moments of play, we can free our minds to imagine better worlds for ourselves —providing us roadmaps to build them into our reality outside of play. Play helps us break away from established patterns, giving us the ability to form new ideas, make connections between disparate elements, and creatively solve the world’s most pressing problems. As a species, our collective happiness, adaptability, and survival is in the hands of every individual. We can start with ourselves to build happier, more meaningful, and connected lives: better lives lead to better communities, better communities lead to better societies, and better societies lead to a better world.
At Common Place Projects, we embrace the power of play and promote its many benefits through projects like Shape Maze —an interactive installation that invites participants to navigate large geometric shapes around a giant maze of tubular tracks, String Theory —an interactive environment where participants can ‘draw’ with string in a room of pegboard-covered walls, and Curl —an interactive surface which allows participants to alter its color and texture through movable ‘tiles.’ We seek to make moments of play easier to find, and, through our work, we strive to infuse the world with fun, mindfulness, and belonging. By dotting our lives with playful moments like these, we can improve our human experience —as individuals, as communities, and as a global society.