‘Almost all creativity involves purposeful play.’
What is play?
There can be no perfect neat and precise definition for play; individuals have variations of their own, and different cultures play in different ways. Nevertheless, most definitions agree on its essential features. Dr Stuart Brown, head of the American non-profit the National Institute for Play sums them up: ‘… play is something done for its own sake, that’s voluntary, pleasurable, offers a sense of engagement, takes you out of time; and the act itself is more important than the outcome.’ (quoted in Yenigun, 2014).
According to Karl Groos – an early 20th century philosopher and naturalist – play gave an evolutionary boost to how we learn, but it has to be self-chosen and self-directed, motivated by means more than ends, guided by mental rules, and should include a strong element of imagination. The online encyclopedia of early childhood development (www.child-encyclopedia.com/play/synthesis) agrees that play is something spontaneous, voluntary, pleasurable and flexible…involving a combination of body, object, symbol use and relationships. Playing simply for its own sake is more disorganised than a game that has a specific outcome in view. Having a kickaround with the kids at the weekend is far more playful than professional
‘Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.’
Are we hard-wired to play?
To fully grasp the importance of play we need to consider its evolutionary roots. Karl Groos suggests that play came about by natural selection as a means to ensure that animals will practice the skills they need in order to survive and reproduce. In the animal kingdom the particular needs of a species appear to shape the kind of play their young engage in. This led Groos to conclude that ‘human beings, having much more to learn than other animal species, play more than other animals… humans, unlike the young of other animals, must learn not just the skills that are crucial to their species everywhere but also those that are unique to the specific culture in which they develop.’ Groos argued that human children have a strong impulse to observe their elders’ activities and incorporate them into their play. During our hunter-gatherer past, physical play was essential to our survival as a species, bonding groups together for social tasks like language development, hunting, rearing young and shelter-building. Peter Gray (2009) suggests that play primarily evolved to teach children all kinds of skills, and its extension into adulthood may have helped to build cooperation and sharing among hunter-gathers beyond the level that would naturally exist in a dominance-seeking species.
‘Play is our brain’s favourite way of learning.’
Play theorists have grouped human play into various skill-related categories, which include active (physical or locomotor) play, constructive play, language play, fantasy or pretend play, games with formal rules, and social play. Types of play can – and often do – cross over into more than one category: social play in particular applies wherever people are playing together. In industrial societies such as ours, games with rules are the type of ‘play’ most likely to be carried over into adulthood, perhaps because they are socially acceptable and significantly competitive, but with rules that provide limits for the competition. In contrast for hunter-gatherer cultures, play with traditional rules is nearly always co-operative and often dance-like (Gray, 2011).
‘Play is the exultation of the possible.’
Play for emotional, social and physical wellbeing
Our understanding of what play is and why it evolved means it is crucial to human development, and not just in life’s early years. At all stages of life play is good for the body and the mind, as well as communal and social development, personal coping skills and wellbeing. The research is clear, play boosts our physical, emotional, and cognitive development; it can even improve our capacity for long-term learning through sharpened critical thinking and problem-solving skills, enhance brain health and memory (Yenigun, 2014), support social skills and make for more successful relationships, reduce stress and of course make life more enjoyable because playing is fun!
The psychologist Peter Gray views unstructured, freely-chosen play as a testing ground for life, and something young children simply must have if they are to develop into confident and competent adults. For my part, as a movement coach and founder of the Primal Play Method I am convinced that adults of all ages benefit from having ‘playgrounds’ where they can play and connect with others in real-time purely for enjoyment, to play just for the sake of it. By stepping playfully away from the stress of modern life we emerge with improved ways of coping. Ongoing engagement with play is an act of self-care – and arguably its most effective form!
‘Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.’
Joseph Chilton Pearce
Why active play is of utmost importance
The World Health Organization (WHO) has defined physical inactivity as a lifestyle with less than 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week. Most of us know the dangers of smoking, alcohol, poor diet and stress but recent research suggests that a sedentary lifestyle is a significant risk factor for chronic disease and premature death. Dame Sally Davies, when Chief Medical Officer of the UK, claimed inactivity was ‘a silent killer’ (Department of Health, Physical Activity, Health Improvement and Protection, 2011). Yet we know too that physical inactivity is still endemic to modern lifestyles and that most adults don’t reach these target levels.
‘The true object of all human life is play.’
G. K. Chesterton
There is nothing new about the benefits of getting moving. As far back as 2500 BC in China, exercise was documented for health promotion (Edwards, 2018a). The surgeon Susrata, who lived in 600 BC, nearly 150 years before Hippocrates, recommended moderate daily exercise and prescribed it to treat obesity and diabetes (Tipton, 1985). Hippocrates himself believed you use it or lose it: ‘That which is used develops, and that which is not used wastes away. If there is any deficiency in exercise, the body will become liable to disease, defective in growth and age quickly.’ He knew about exercise for mental health too: ‘If you are in a bad mood go for a walk. If you are still in a bad mood go for another walk!’ (Grammaticos & Diamantis, 2008).
Active play combines exercise with play that encourages collaboration, communication and increased confidence. The discovery of how to learn comes about through witnessing the relationship between practice and improvement: something usually considered of particular importance to children but which, given the sedentary nature of most adults’ daily routines, is a connection we clearly need to re-learn (Edwards, 2018b).
‘All scientific knowledge to which man owes his role as master of the world arose from playful activities.’
Konrad Lorenz, Studies in animal and human behaviour
The decline of play
People overall, including children, are playing less than they did 20 years ago. One US study found that compared with 1981, children in 1997 spent less time in play and had less free time. They spent 18% more time at school, 145% more time doing school-work, and 168% more time shopping with parents. Even including computer play, children in 1997 spent only about 11 hours a week at play. And as Gray (2011) points out, a lack of play affects emotional development, leading to the rise of anxiety, depression, and problems of attention and self-control. Over the same period there has been a well-documented decline in young people’s mental and social wellbeing. In the UK one in six school-age children has a mental health problem, an alarming rise compared with one in ten in 2004 and one in nine in 2017 (NHS Digital, 2020). In the USA in the 1990s rates of teenage and young adult major depressive disorder and generalised anxiety disorder were five to eight times what they had been in the 1950s (Twenge, 2000).
‘Play keeps us vital and alive. It gives us an enthusiasm for life that is irreplaceable. Without it, life just doesn’t taste good.’
Play as self-care
Play offers opportunities for gaining some control of one’s own emotions and responses and to consider others and engage with them – in their absence self-absorption, selfishness, and narcissism may flourish. Even if the mental health consequences are not so severe, a lack of these skills may sow the seeds of a reclusive or anti-social life.
‘If you want to be creative, stay in part a child, with the creativity and invention that characterizes children before they are deformed by adult society.’
Self-care is not some narcissistic pampering or luxurious self-indulgence nor selfish, trivial small pleasures. It can be a vital tool for maintaining mental health and emotional resilience. Self-care includes finding ways to cope with everyday stressors. So if play can be part of effective selfcare then how should authentic play be encouraged, restarted and recaptured? The playful state is, arguably, easier for children to achieve. There are many ways in which a parent might encourage this kind of freeform playfulness, encouraging instances of play when they notice it, and avoiding any impulse to be critical of it or impose improvements. Play needs time, so set screen limits, cut back on extracurricular activities, and allow children to get bored so they can figure out how to overcome it creatively themselves. Free-play often needs children to be left to their own devices and feel that they are unobserved.
‘We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.’
George Bernard Shaw
Paradoxically play is a practice and parents will need to lead by example if they want playful children. The rediscovery of adult play will be good for them and the generation they are responsible for. Start by creating a list of remembered activities you enjoyed as a child and spot any that still seem appealing. Then schedule some room for spontaneity – time to explore and enjoy them. But don’t let them be squeezed out by other tasks or jammed into your schedule during moments of stress. Start simply, and don’t aim too high. Try it out for a few weeks. Play with the discipline of playing! Maybe include trying new activities unrelated to work, and keep playful activities on hand – puzzles, adult colouring books, or adult Lego sets. Or even better, get outdoors and play a game of Primal Play Tag (www.facebook.com/fitnessexplorer/videos/477236059805481). Re-engage with your inner child and climb a tree!
‘The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.’
Reading this may have made you aware of how genuinely daunting it feels to imagine consciously introducing play into your life, or how you might encourage your children to play with or without you if they are unaccustomed to it. Yet vital as play is to the physical, mental and emotional health of communities, families and individuals, it’s clear that the benefits would far outweigh the challenges.
So let’s start taking play seriously. From here on let’s treat it as an evolutionary gift and promote it as the highest form of self-care.
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