When you think fondly about your boyhood days, you probably think about the time you spent playing. While we now associate playing with toys, your best memories probably don’t involve plastic crap at all. You likely think about catching fireflies, building dirt ramps for your bike, playing capture the flag, having dirt clod fights, playing wall ball, and hunting for sparrows with your BB gun.
As we got older, those endless summer nights of play came to an end as we were expected to take on more responsibility and act more “grown up.” We accepted new rules about how to behave and what to prioritize. We stopped playing and started working.
Here at the Art of Manliness we’re about the business of helping men man up and quit being perpetual boys. But becoming an adult man shouldn’t mean that you completely extinguish your boyish spirit and vitality. Indeed, an irrepressible boyishness is essential to a life of fun, humor, and happiness. While becoming a man means putting away some childish things, playtime shouldn’t be one of them.
The Importance of Play
Most grown-ups view play as a kind of dress-rehearsal for adulthood, believing that once we become adults, the need for play evaporates. But little of children’s play relates to actual adult experiences; most of us don’t grow up to become Spiderman or a swashbuckling pirate. Children play simply for play’s sake, for the pleasure they get from it. And it turns out that adults need to play for the very same reason. We shouldn’t grow out of play; even our biology rejects the idea.
Humans are in fact the most neotenous species on the planet. Neoteny refers to the retention of immature qualities into adulthood. We’re not talking about pooping in our pants here; rather, humans retain the ability to imagine and play, and this gives us an evolutionary advantage in how flexible and adaptable we are. Humans are uniquely designed to play throughout our entire lifetimes. ((http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/stuart_brown_says_play_is_more_than_fun_it_s_vital.html)) So we are not supposed to suppress the boy within us completely!
While there hasn’t been much research on adults and play (it’s hard to get grants for studies on the subject), scientists who work in the field believe that many of the numerous and scientifically proven benefits that children get from play apply to adults as well. Play boosts our optimism and immune system, increases our happiness, and gives us a sense of belonging and community. According to Dr. Stuart Brown, the head of the National Institute of Play (yes, it’s a real institute), while we think the opposite of play is work, it’s actually depression.
Play is also essential to having healthy relationships with others. To quote the NIFP:
“Play refreshes a long-term adult-adult relationship; some of the hallmarks of its refreshing, oxygenating action are: humor, the enjoyment of novelty, the capacity to share a lighthearted sense of the world’s ironies, the enjoyment of mutual storytelling , the capacity to openly divulge imagination and fantasies, … These playful communications and interactions, when nourished, produce a climate for easy connection and deepening, more rewarding relationship – true intimacy.
Take play out of the mix, and like the oxygen deprived cyanotic, the relationship becomes a survival endurance contest. Without play skills, the repertoire to deal with inevitable stresses is narrowed. Even if loyalty, responsibility, duty, and steadfastness remain, without playfulness there will be insufficient vitality left over to keep the relationship buoyant and satisfying.”
What is Play?
On the surface, the question of what constitutes play is a simple one. But as adults we lose our sense and feel for play, so it may be beneficial to explain the nature of play a bit.
Play is an activity that is done for its own purpose, exclusively for the pleasure of the experience. According to Dr. Brown, if an activity’s “purpose is more important than the act of doing it, it’s probably not play.” Or to put it another way, “Most essential, the activity should not have an obvious function in the context in which it is observed—meaning that it has, essentially, no clear goal.” ((http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-serious-need-for-play))
While we most often think of play in terms of things like tag and four square, there are actually 7 different types of play:
Attunement occurs when individuals mutually create, match and share their affective states. The best example of this is when a mother or father gazes at their baby, and the baby gazes back. The baby smiles, and the parent coos and smiles back. The right brains of both parent and child are attuned. Another example of this is being a spectator at a sporting event; the fans are attuned to one another and are united by a sense of common emotion.
Body Play and Movement
This is the kind of play we probably most often think of when we think of play, not only as children but as adults. Whenever we jump on or over stuff, play football, dance, run, and so on, we receive the pure pleasure of feeling our bodies move and work. Dr. Brown defines Body Play as “the spontaneous desire to get ourselves out of gravity.”
Object plays occurs when you’re having fun doing something, with, well, an object. Like a boy playing with action figures or pretending that a stick is a sword. Or a man tinkering with an engine or playing catch or golf (perhaps those latter two are especially pleasurable because they combine object play and body play).
Social play encompasses a wide variety of forms from rough housing with other guys, to flirting with the opposite sex. Dr. Brown argues that “the basis of human trust is established through play signals.” If you’ve ever bonded with a friend by wrestling, or felt a sense of belonging after playing a game of Ultimate Frisbee, you understand how this works.
Imaginative and Pretend Play
This is the kind of play that comes easiest to kids and hardest to adults. We lose a lot of our capacity for imagination as we age. But if you’ve ever gone paintballing, dressed up for an adult Halloween party, or wholly let go of your adult cynicism at Disneyworld, you know that we still have some capacity for it.
Storytelling is not something we ordinarily think of as play. But as the Institute of Play argues, “It is in their capacity to produce a sense of timelessness, pleasure and the altered state of vicarious involvement that identifies narrative and storytelling with states of play.”
Transformative/Integrative and Creative Play
Sometimes we can use our play to create new things and foster ideas. You can brainstorm crazy ideas for an invention, jam out on your guitar as you think of new songs to write, or make a funny video of your cat to post on Youtube.
Todays Task: Play!
While play may seem like a silly frivolity, it’s actually an essential part of our health and well-being. Manning up doesn’t mean turning into a robotic stiff. You should also maintain some of your boyish spirit. You need to make room in your life for things that you don’t have to do, but that you simply do because it gives you pleasure. So today you have to spend at least 30 minutes in pure play.
There’s definitely an aspect of play with video games, but for the sake of stretching yourself today, pick something a little more creative and open-ended. Play a pick-up game of basketball with your friends, a board game with your wife, or catch with your kid. Jam on your guitar or dust off your skateboard. Take a hike or ride your bike.
Do something that society says you’re too old for, but you know deep down absolutely still gives you joy. Make a slingshot; play with fireworks; build and fly a paper airplane; play table football; skip a stone; fly a kite.
Keep in mind that some of the best play involves novelty, curiosity, and most of all, exploration, whether of the limits of your body, new physical locations, or the corners of your mind.
Remember, the purpose of play can’t be more important than the pleasure you get from it. So you can go for a run, but you can’t bring a watch or try to set a new PR. And you can tinker in the garage, but not because you need to check changing your car’s oil off your to-do list. It must be something that you’re doing simply for the fun of it.
For ideas about what to do for play, Dr. Brown recommends thinking back to your fondest childhood memory of play and linking that memory back to your present life. For example, if you used to love tag and kickball then go play a pick-up game of some sport. And if you used to love being read to at night, then read to your kid. If your favorite thing to do as a kid was climb trees, go scramble over some rocks. If you used to endlessly tinker with an erector set, work on a craft.
But of course don’t over think this task too much; it’s play after all! Just think about something that sounds fun and do it.
Finally, while today’s task it to set aside time for play, you should ideally strive to make play an integrated part of your everyday life.
Now go play!
Listen to our podcast on the value of play: