What is the Point of Play?

Importance of PlayWe all have a vague idea of why play is good for children. But what about us grown-ups?

This past fall I was lucky enough to attend the LDI (Live Design International) conference in Las Vegas with my fiancé. I seriously love these people. Their business is curating play. If you’ve ever been to a concert, festival, sports event, play or even just a big party anywhere in the world, you’ve seen their work in action. They provide the curtains, the lights, the confetti, the video screens – I could go on and on.

There’s a LOT more to play than attending events, but it’s a great starting place for a conversation about play. There are plenty of ways to play that don’t require high production value (just ask a child). But it’s something more adults can relate to than a game of hop scotch in the front yard.

Play, Sleep and Stress

When life gets stressful, which can be all the time for some of us, it’s easy to give up play. I’ve seen people roll their eyes at the idea of doing something fun, usually muttering something sarcastic under their breath like “Must be nice!” The same goes for sleep. It’s as if we’re expecting to be rewarded for needing the least amount of sleep because we have so much work to do.

But sleep is getting a lot of good press in health circles these days. I’m hoping that, as we learn how basic and vital sleep is to our overall health, these kinds of attitudes will go out with the Big Mac. The same should go for play.

Play is a Non-Negotiable

Around the time when I was first learning how to play again (hop scotch style), I was also becoming more aware of how stress was negatively affecting my body. Even when stressful things weren’t happening, my body didn’t get the memo. It was like the stress faucet was stuck in the “on” position and I didn’t know how to shut it off (which is kind of literally what happens in our bodies with chronic stress). I wasn’t performing my best at work, I felt like I was walking through molasses and I needed six cups of coffee a day to keep going. I knew I needed to do something about it, but I didn’t know what.


Then I heard an episode of NPR’s TED Radio Hour called “Press Play.” I had to pull over. I realized that I was on the right track after all. Play was helping me see an alternative. It helped me recognize that I didn’t HAVE to live like that. But what could I do about it? It’s pretty simple: create more space in my life for play. Here are some quotes from the TED Radio Hour episode’s guests on why:

Why, when we have so many important things to do, is it important to play? Apes who have to travel long distances to find food spend so much time socializing, playing. Playing in animals or humans is about shared joy. Play is our adaptive wildcard. In order to adapt successfully to a changing world, we need to play. Play is not frivolous. Play is essential. In times when it seems least appropriate to play, it might be the times when it’s most urgent.Isabel Behncke Izquierdo, Primatologist

“‘The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression’” (a quote from Brian Sutton-Smith). If you stop rats from playing naturally when they’re young in one control group, and you let the other group play naturally, then present both with a cat-saturated collar (which they’re hard wired to flee and hide from), the non players never come out. They die. The players slowly begin to explore their environment and test things out. That says to me that play may be pretty important for our survival.

The same results are seen in other mammals. They explore options that they wouldn’t explore otherwise if they hadn’t played. The exploration of the possible, the capacity for play, allows us to take in novelty and newness. We use it to adapt and become more flexible, and have a good time in the process.

There really are some heartening signs even in a dementia ward that their level of agitation and their need for medication goes down as they get playful. From birth to death, there is a presence in our beings for playfulness. – Stuart Brown, MD, Founder of The National Institute for Play.

Shared Joy

I’m thankful for the people at LDI for their service to the world. For cultivating what Isabel Behncke Izquierdo called “shared joy.” These are playful people even in their work – always seeking new ways to dazzle us. But there’s so much more to play if we really want to explore it. It’s so important for adults to not only play in groups, but to play alone. And there are so many ways to play, like organized sports, make believe, trips, art and sex.

If you subscribe to this podcast, I’ll take you on a little tour of the things I’m learning about play from people I’m working with and meeting every day, from reading Stuart Brown’s book and following Isabel Behncke Izquierdo’s work.

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