Play Time

Photo by  Lidya Nada  on  Unsplash

Photo by Lidya Nada on Unsplash

As I researched and wrote about this week's topic of play, I kept experiencing a delightful sense of lightness.  I mean - I was spending hours writing about playful topics, watching videos on having fun in adulthood, and researching websites and entire organizations that are dedicated to the experiences of play. Fun, no?

But once I moved away from research and into practical application, oddly enough, I felt a bit more reluctant and heavy.

I've noticed this trend in a majority of my adult friends as well: when we are talking about play, it's all fun and games...but when one is asked to actually bring more play into daily life, the excuses start flowing in.  

Why do we feel this way?

Play in adulthood has often been associated with wasting time, being non-productive, and the opposite of work. "Playing" in this sense means you aren't getting done what needs to get done - that you are being irresponsible. Added to the moral guilt is the issue of time. In many instances, it feels like just one more thing to add to the "to-do" list.

It's no wonder, then, that in our productivity-driven society, play is something that is left to weekends, vacations, or something done only with kids.

Segregating play in this way is killing our creative nature.

But play with me here: what if we shifted perspectives?


(Re-)Defining Play

The opposite of play is not work, it is depression.
— Brian Sutton-Smith

Before we talk about bringing more play into daily life, we should probably examine what we mean by "play". But play has been notoriously hard to define (similar to the concept of "love"). It looks drastically different depending on who is doing it, what age they are, the social crowd, the culture, the environment, etc. However, there is an essence of play that we each understand on a deep level, even if those outer actions look different.

Let's start with that essence, that feeling of play, and build words upon it that we can use to discuss moving forward. Try these:

In an article written in Psychology Today, Peter Gray (research professor at Boston College) states 5 possible characteristics of play. 

(1) Play is self-chosen and self-directed;

(2) Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends;

(3) Play has structure, or rules, which are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players;

(4) Play is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life; and

(5) Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.

The more of these characteristics that an activity shares, the more likely it is to be considered “play”.

Sit with these for a moment, then think about the Exhale of creative expression in the BeingBreath cycle. Consider this statement (from the same article and author):

Play is, first and foremost, an expression of freedom. It is one WANTS to do as opposed to what one is OBLIGED to do. The joy of play is the ecstatic feeling of liberty.

Can you feel the deep exhale that comes from thinking of days lived with such freedom?


The Weight of Obligation

it (play) is what one WANTS to do as opposed to what one is OBLIGED to do

I don't know about you, but I tend to have a very argumentative mind. If I hear one perspective, my next thought is often, "Yeah, BUT...."

I can't continue this light-hearted exploration of play without paying attention to the teenager part of my thoughts that is screaming at me. So let’s address the elephant taking up the entire room and stomping around in my mind (and possibly yours):

Life IS part obligation.

There's no denying that. There are things that have to be done in order to survive – physically, psychologically, and as part of our modern day society. 

If you are feeling anxious or dismissing the possibility of daily play because you are picturing all of your obligations, scoffing at releasing them, and feeling as though you don't have time to play in between all of those obligations ... this next part is for you.

As much as it can feel like it, your obligations are not forced upon you by outside forces. "Want” and “obliged” are actually mental constructs (i.e. ways of thinking about something). No one can actually force you to do anything (outside of torture or abuse, and those are not the situations to which I’m referring here).

Feeling obliged to do something actually means you feel obliged to that activity because it leads to a certain outcome that you desire. For good or bad, you are attached to the outcome.

You are obliged to go to work because you want an income to pay for a home (car, etc).

You are obliged to follow through on a commitment because you believe that doing so is morally correct, and you desire to live in alignment with your morals.

You are obliged to do the laundry because you want clean clothes for yourself and your family.

You are obliged to eat because you don’t want to starve.

You are obliged to interact nicely with your co-worker / acquaintance / relative because you don’t want to be in a negative relationship with that person or because your morals dictate it.

[*I want to acknowledge here that I write this from a place of privilege. There is a large difference between feeling obliged to be nice to someone because you want a good relationship with them and feeling obliged to be nice to someone because you fear that they might hurt you otherwise. There is a large difference between feeling obliged to work extra hours because you “need” your cell phone versus feeling obliged to work extra hours because you need money for food. For those in such challenging situations, please know that I am not trying to trivialize your situation by implying that all it takes is a change of mental outlook to change your situation. I deeply respect the challenges you face and admit that I cannot speak of or for them.]

The thing to remember is that you desire an outcome, whether that outcome is the achieving of something or the avoidance of something. Your sense of obligations is ultimately driven by those desires...and the burden you feel around obligations arises from your own thinking.

If I get to pick what I want to do, then it’s play…if someone else tells me that I have to do it, then it’s work.
— Patricia Nourot

Once you understand this, you have an opportunity to free yourself from the actual obligations OR to embrace the process and free yourself from the weight of those obligations.

You may choose to:

1)       Release attachment to / change the ultimate desire, therefore releasing the obligations tied to that desire, or

2)      Keep the same desired outcome, but view the steps to get there as equal desires - not obligations. (That is, the process becomes a desired part of living as well - not another "have to")

Which option you choose depends on what you discover after a bit of self-examination.

For example, you may really to lose 5 pounds. After self-examination, you come to realize that you are actually ok with how your body looks and feels, and the 5 pound goal is a silly social construct. Obligation, gone. OR, after that self-reflection, you may decide that losing that 5 pounds will help you feel stronger and overall better. Keeping in mind that delightful future-you, the workouts and food you eat become opportunities to live more in harmony with that self. You aren't obliged to diet or exercise - you get to choose how you eat and move because it is in alignment with how you want to live. Your meals become choices, not obligations.

What examples can you think of in your own life - either changing the ultimate desire or changing your feelings around the steps to get there? Be playful when thinking about this.

This isn’t about trying to trick yourself. It is reminding yourself that much of that weight you carry around obligations and “have-to’s” is unnecessary. Changing your mindset is freeing you to feel and act upon what is possible.


The Daily Experience of Play

The joy of play is the ecstatic feeling of liberty

By now, I hope you understand that play isn’t an activity you have to save until your next vacation.

Play is a FEELING that you can experience Every. Single. Day.

Can you imagine?

When you play, you set free your creative self. Without the walls of obligation, possibilities present themselves in ways never before seen. Without the weight of obligation, you feel more ease of moving in between these possibilities.

For those resisting the free-for-all chaos that this seems to present (still hearing those argumentative voices in my own head!): remember, play has rules and boundaries. It isn't anarchy. The difference from typical rules, though, is that play rules emanate from and adapt with the mind of the player(s) - not from rigid precepts. 

You don't need to toss your responsibilities out the window. (Please don't.) Instead, infuse the feeling of play into these daily tasks.

Consider this example (from the same article mentioned above in Psychology Today):

For White, play is a way of being in the world — being more “playful.”

”The person at the grocery store that’s in line, can you goof with them? Or are you just in a hurry: ‘Oh, they’ve got 14 items’; you counted them, and it’s 12 or less. ‘I can’t believe that!!’ How does that feel being in that psychological space?”

Life, he said, is much easier with a playful approach.

The most mundane of activities turned into creative play can bring daily joy. (And for my fellow introverts who cringe at the idea of randomly playing with a stranger at the grocery store, do not fear: I have plenty more examples below.)

Playfulness...allows people to frame or reframe everyday situations in a way such that they experience them as entertaining, and/or intellectually stimulating, and/or personally interesting. Those on the high end of this dimension seek and establish situations in which they can interact playfully with others (e.g., playful teasing, shared play activities) and they are capable of using their playfulness even under difficult situations to resolve tension (e.g., in social interactions, or in work- type settings)
— Dr René T. Proyer, Department of Psychology at Martin-Luther University, Halle-Wittenberg


Ways That Adults Can Play

Photo by  Valerie Elash  on  Unsplash

Photo by Valerie Elash on Unsplash

Play is a feeling that is expressed - and then re-energized - through action. 

In childhood, play often comes naturally. Spaces of time are set aside for children to explore play (such as recess).

In adulthood, not only is play often limited to socially-accepted times (which are few and far between), but many adults have simply forgotten how to creatively engage in such activities.

So what can play look like after childhood? Very similar - and drastically different - from what one might see on a playground.

It might be very active OR contemplatively quiet- done in groups OR by yourself. (Great for extroverts and introverts alike)

Keep thinking creatively about play. Remember that ultimately, you are trying to get yourself thinking and acting differently than you habitually would. This leaves an enormous potential for the possibilities of how play may appear in your life.

A few examples:

  • Play sports (competitive or not, such as softball, tennis, running, disc golf, etc.)
  • Flirt (yes, this is play - and a secret favorite of mine)
  • Forest bathe
  • Chalk draw (on a sidewalk, your driveway, with permission in a public place)
  • Dance (in your own living room, at a club, or in a class; during set-aside time or while water is warming on the stove)
  • Improv (in a class or be creative through experiments on your own)
  • Wear a style of dress or accoutrements that you normally would not
  • Bring bubbles to public places and create a fun environment for passers-by (no blowing in faces, please) (or just blow bubbles for yourself in your own backyard)
  • Journal or art-journal
  • Run .... from zombies
  • Play with your kids or your dog
  • Visit a kids playground, or an adult one (such as City Museum in St. Louis)
  • Play with your food. Stack sweetener packets at the restaurant. Serve meals at home in smiley face shapes.
  • Learn a new vocabulary word, and see how many times you can work it into conversations throughout the day.
  • Construct a haiku in your head as you are waiting at the gas pump
  • Spend 5 minutes brainstorming as many ways as you can of how you could play in your own unique life. Then spend the next 5 minutes doing one on your list.

Thinking about something will not get you the same results as doing it.

So I challenge you to choose something - from the list above or something that you feel called to do in your own life - and do it TODAY. Right now is best. Before you go to bed tonight is better than nothing.

Each moment is a place you’ve never been.
— Mark Strand

Play with it.