When you watch a kid play it can be intoxicating. It’s hard not to get pulled into the vividly imaged scenarios the child is painting.

Children have a natural gift when it comes to pulling people into their imagined reality. A painted line on the floor can become a tightrope stretched across a chasm; a stick on the ground can become a wand from a Harry Potter movie that, when waved, can transport them into a magical world.

And just by being in their presence we can often get pulled into these worlds and become part of them.

It’s easy to be influence in this way by a child, most likely because there’s a playful kid within all of us.

When we were young, we engaged in the creation all manner of imaginative worlds and enjoyed the pleasure of playful exploration. It was a natural instinct that was irrepressible.

As we start to breach into adulthood though, something changes.

We become “socialised”.

We’re told to, “stop fooling around”, “stand up straight”, or to, “start taking our life seriously”.

The act of “play” becomes re-framed as something trivial; the joy of creatively messing around becomes something to be discouraged; it’s sometimes even labelled as destructive.

Some extreme forms of play can be destructive of course, and we do have to learn social rules and norms, but as a society, we often go too far in an attempt to crush our innate playful spirit and replace it with chronic seriousness.

The War on “Play”…

I recall a sharp and sudden difference between Primary school (age 5 to 12) and Secondary school (age 12 to 17).

During my Primary school years learning was a joy. Each day we were encouraged to engage in “Structured” play; the teachers made an effort to craft clever games to engage the kids, and learning rarely felt like anything other than pleasurable.

Learning was fun, enjoyable and I couldn’t wait to go to school each day.

But then the minute I walked into secondary education the grind began. Games and play were replaced with repetition, restriction, and conformity.

Deeper forms of learning were replaced by memory tests, designed just to get you through an exam.

You weren’t allowed to move beyond the strict confines of your desk, and any attempts to do things creatively and different were squashed.

Most workplaces are similar. Play is often equated to undesirable tomfoolery and the opposite to the ideal working environment.

If you’re playing then you’re not working. You’re paid to do a job so it’s a requirement that you take it seriously and quit the fooling around.

Adult socialisation can, at times, be like a war against play time to let go of the adolescent fun and put the stuffed shirt on. Because the more serious we are, the more effective we are right?

Well, not really. I wouldn’t say that’s accurate at all.

Play is a vital part of being human. It’s not something that should be banished and squashed the minute we enter adulthood. It’s not something that should be eliminated from the working environment.

It’s an innate gift that we should be making use of. As an adult we have to do it in a structured way of course, but it’s important that we make it part of our life.

And to do so can, in fact, help us get a higher quality of work done, reduce stress and make life a whole lot more enjoyable to boot.

So here are 3 powerful benefits of “Play”, and reasons why you need it in your life.

Play isn’t something just for kids: it’s for adults too.

1. Play Stimulates creativity and adaptability.

When we engage in play something magical happens. No longer do we buy into the day-to-day boundaries and restrictions we place on our experience. Rather than worrying about whether we are doing the “right” thing, we become more open to different ways of behaving.

Play doesn’t come with the same consequences and repercussions as serious, real life interactions do. When we do things within the frame of “play”, we get license to experiment; it becomes acceptable for us to think, feel and behave in ways that are different to what we normally do.

Because we’re only playing, right? It’s not real.

This is one of the reasons why stand-up comedians can get away with saying things that perhaps wouldn’t be appropriate in day-to-day conversations. The “play frame” has been set so it becomes acceptable to explore places you wouldn’t normally explore, in different and unique ways.

When we play, we are engaging our creativity and this, as a result, can lead to us becoming more flexible and adaptable in the way that we think and behave.

In fact, one study in Canada, by psychology professors Gregory West, Sylvie Belleville and Isabelle Peretz of Montreal University, showed that playing video games can actually cause an increases in gray matter volume in the hippocampus and cerebellum.

The experiment was conducted over a 6 month period on both young adults in their twenties and this aged between 55 and 70.

In both cases, they found that the participants showed an increase in their planning, memory and decision making.

Play, as Stuart Brown, the founder of The National Institute for Play says, “leads to brain plasticity, creativity, and adaptability.”

Play is the in-built mechanism that stimulates learning and development, no matter what age we are.

2.  Play is like having a “Life Simulator”.

There are many reasons why kids play so much. And it’s not a conscious decision either: they are compelled to do so because the urge is innate.

It’s thought that one of the main reasons is because “to play” is to make use of your own “Life Simulator”.

As young kids we have to learn fast, and one of the ways we do this is to act out, or simulate, different scenarios. And this is often done through playing games.

In his excellent book, The Storytelling animal: why stories matter, author Jonathan Gottschall makes a point about the games kids play: they all, at some level, involve “trouble”.

Kids games will, inevitably, at some point involve some kind of challenging scenario that they have to overcome. Whether it be falling down into an imaginary pit of snakes Indiana Jones style or having to saving one of their team members from being held captive in a tree house, it’s rare the imagined scenarios are trouble free.

Games allow kids – and adults – to role-play troubling scenarios, experiment with solutions and try them out so that they have some experience to draw from if something similar ever arises in the future.

It might seem like just innocent fun but what’s actually going on is brain training for the future.

Play is not just something we do to alleviate stress, it’s a mechanism we use to simulate life.

It’s like learning to become an airline pilot. You wouldn’t be instructed to jump straight into a plane and figure it out as you go along. You’ll train first in a simulator, which will allow you to try out different scenarios and make some mistakes, so that you are better versed for the real thing.

Play is a crucial part of our development as kids, and it’s also a crucial part of our development as adults.

Play more. Learn more.

3. Play makes life easier & more enjoyable.

The function of play is not solely to reduce stress but it certainly does a good job at doing that.

Humour, fun and play can be some of the best stress busters.

When we engage in play, life doesn’t feel quite as difficult.

Excessive seriousness has a tendency to shut down all of our creative resources. It makes life harder to deal with.

It can become like a self-re-enforcing vicious circle: we experience hard times so we, understandably, start to look at it seriously. The seriousness then starts to lower our creativity and resourcefulness, and it becomes difficult to see a solution.

It’s important that we take our problems seriously, but at the same time, we also want to appreciate that excessive seriousness most likely won’t lead to the solution. 

If we seriously want to explore and look for innovative solutions to our problems we need to first enter a state of play. This will stimulate the imagination, and it can then be used as a vehicle to explore and find a way out of the situation.

It’s not that you’re making “fun of” the problem by doing do: you’re engaging in play in order to become creative enough to explore innovative solutions.

On a basic level though, when we engage in play it just feels good. Our body is supplied with feel-good chemicals and there’s no longer any place for stressful ones.

Think about it: if you were to cast your mind back to a time where you were full engaged in play, how did you feel?

Most people say that they felt amazing.

Play creates a kind of “flow-like” state like few other things can. It brings us into the moment and activates all manner of pleasure circuits.

Play is immensely useful, and it also feels wonderful.

Summary…

So maybe it’s time to play more?

It’ll make you more creative, adaptive, and will accelerate your development.

You’ll also be making use of your “Life Simulator” – role-playing scenarios and engaging in brain training for the future.

And, it’ll just make life flow better, causing it to be infinitely more enjoyable.

So perhaps it’s time to unleash the child within?

All the best,

Steven


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