Episode #7: Making a Case for Play

When is the last time you played? When did you last do something just for the fun of it? Has it been a while? Are you squinting quizzically at the question as if it doesn't compute? As adults, we sometimes come to think of play as a waste of time. What if I told you that play is good for your health? What if I told you that play is a critical component of a innovative, creative, resilient humans and organizations? When you set goals for yourself, do you have goals related to play? If you don’t, you should. This episode makes the case for prioritizing play in your personal and professional life.

"Play," she said. I looked at my therapist quizzically. "Google it."

I had been in therapy for a couple of years. The anxiety and depression that had held me in a vice grip had released enough to begin to explore "new" ideas.

The invocation to "play" was foreign to me. Not because I was living with mental illness. But because it was a concept I had all but erased from my understanding.

It wasn't that I made a conscious choice not to play. It was simply that I allowed other things in my life to use all of my oxygen--and once I ran out of oxygen, I lost my capacity to play.

I knew how to work harder and longer than just about anyone I knew. I knew how to keep the house running, pay the bills, feed the family. I knew how to push my body--mentally and physically.

I couldn't sit down and play legos with my son without the anxiety crashing in waves over me. I could watch my daughter play volleyball, but only if I was also on twitter, email, text at the same time. I was actually overwhelmed by the idea of sitting down to watch a movie.

I knew how to persist. I knew how to endure. I knew how to pour myself into an idea, a company, a founder, a mission.

I didn't know how to play. I didn't know how to rest.

So why don’t we play? Like me, many of us use up all the of the oxygen in our lives doing “more important” things. There is a stigma that play is childish, lazy, irresponsible and unproductive. 

According to Brene Brown, the main barrier to adults in North America being able to rest and play is that exhaustion has become a status symbol and productivity has become a symbol of self worth. This belief leads us to even viewing sleep as a waste of time and leaves us sleep deprived and prone to disease and depression.
So what is play anyway? 

Play can be defined as engaging in an activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose

Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play says there are seven properties that describe play: 

  1. apparently purposeless
  2. voluntary
  3. inherent attraction to it
  4. while doing it there is freedom from time
  5. diminishes the consciousness of self
  6. has improvisational potential (open, not rigid)
  7. continuation desire makes you want to do it more

Benefits of Play

Relieve Stress

  • play can be a state of mind (not just an activity)
  • play releases endorphins
  • being in the present moment
  • play often leads to laughter which has been linked to decreased stress and inflammation and may improve vascular health; your blood pressure goes down; you release dopamine

Improve Brain Function - Fun activities that challenge the brain: 

  • help prevent memory problems
  • social interaction of playing with family and friends can help ward off stress and depression
  • shapes our brain--when we play we engage in the same patterns of behavior that positively shape the brains of children; the same playful behaviors that predict emotional health in children can also lead to positive changes in adults
  • speed up learning

Stimulate the Mind and Boost Creativity

  • Learn new tasks better when it’s fun and you’re in a relaxed and playful mood
  • Stimulate your imagination
  • Play often involves changing conditions which helps you learn to adapt and problem-solve

Improve Relationships and Connection - sharing laughter and fun can foster:

  • empathy
  • compassion
  • trust
  • intimacy
  • can heal resentments, disagreements, and hurts
  • one of the most effective tools for keeping relationships fresh
  • improves social skills--verbal communication, body language, boundaries, cooperation and teamwork

Boost Energy and Well-being

  • play can be a state of mind (not just an activity)
  • improve resistance to disease (gives your immune system a boost)
  • refreshes your mind and body
  • rejuvenate

According to a March 2018 article posted on Helpguide.org, more play at work results results in more productivity, higher job satisfaction, greater workplace morale, and a decrease in employees skipping work and staff turnover. 

Taking a pause for play does a lot more than take your mind off the problem. When you play, you engage the creative side of your brain and silence your “inner editor,” that psychological barrier that censors your thoughts and ideas. This can often help you see the problem in a new light and think up fresh, creative solutions. 

Playing at work: 

Keeps you functional when under stress

  • Refreshes your mind and body
  • Encourages teamwork
  • Increases energy and prevents burnout
  • Triggers creativity and innovation
  • Helps you see problems in new ways

Ways to play: Play 

Remember that there isn’t a “right” way to play . . . think back to the qualities Dr. Brown identified . . .

Creating the coditions:

  • Give yourself PERMISSION--just as important as sleep and food
  • Focus on the process
  • Be present
  • Play with others

“Play is a basic human need as essential to our well-being as sleep, so when we’re low on play, our minds and bodies notice,” Dr. Brown says. Over time, play deprivation can reveal itself in certain patterns of behavior: We might get cranky, rigid, feel stuck in a rut or feel victimized by life. To benefit most from the rejuvenating benefits of play, he says, we need to incorporate it into our everyday live, “not just wait for that ... vacation every year.”

Write down activities you know you love or things you would like to try, schedule, and protect just as you would any other high priority commitment.