There's a lot of talk now-a-days about the need to “free play” in schools, and prioritizing exercise and play time during a child’s day. But I say -- why should kids get all the fun? Adults should get recess too! In fact, adults need to play just as much as kids do.
First off, let’s define (or at least try to define) play. This can be pretty tough. Play is one of those “I know what it is but I can’t explain it” kinda things. And not just to the kids who didn’t do their homework. Experts don’t really have an agreed upon definition for play. Usually they default to several statements that describe play. For our purposes, we will go with the 5 most agreed-upon characteristics of human play.
Play is self-chosen and self-directed. This means it is what you want to do; you aren’t being forced to do something, or to play by rules that you don’t agree with.
Play is intrinsically motivated. Play is done for the sake of playing. The means of playing are more important than the end result of winning or getting an award. If you are doing something in order to achieve a benefit outside of the activity itself, you are like Peter Pan losing his happy thought. You’ve lost the benefit of play, and will never fly again. The point of participating is to get to participate!
Play is guided by mental rules, but the rules leave room for creativity. The rules are the framework that play is built around. Without them, you are just randomly doing things, or nothing. Yet, the rules can’t tell you exactly what to do.
Play is imaginative. This is obvious when kids are playing house, but it actually applies to all play. Picture someone holding a basketball and walking around. In real life it is not a difficult task. But if that person is playing basketball, suddenly they can’t move their feet unless the ball is bouncing, all because of imagined rules. When you think of it that way, pretty much every athlete looks ridiculous playing any sport.
Play is conducted in an alert, active, but relatively non-stressed frame of mind. All of your attention and focus is given to play. Hence the saying “time flies when you’re having fun.” You enter into what has been called a “flow state.” It is mental state highly sought after by CEO’s and easily attained by children. If that statement doesn’t give you a hankering to find a playground for some fish out of water, I don’t know what will.
Now that we have an idea of what play is, let’s figure out why we care. Few would contend the fact that it is good for kids to play. But most probably don’t realize just how good. One of the biggest benefits for children is the development of EXECUTIVE FUNCTION. One of the main aspects of executive function is self-control. Children learn to control their actions, emotions, and resist urges just by playing. Unfortunately, all of the structure being imposed on children is hindering this skill. A study done in 1940 was redone in 2000, testing the ability of 3, 5, and 7-year-olds to stand still. Compared with the results from 1940, current 5-year-olds scored like the original 3-year-olds, and the current 7-year-olds were worse than the 5-year-olds of 1940.
Besides executive function, play has been shown to help develop and improve math skills, language, and creative problem solving skills. Just to reiterate the point, I’m talking about free play. I want to make it clear that there is a difference between P.E. class and recess.
In P.E. kids are told what to do. At recess, it is their choice, going back to that first statement about “self-chosen and self-directed.”
This is an important distinction. If you think signing kids up for 3 hours of extracurriculars a day is contributing to their playtime, you’re wrong. Too much structure at playtime stunts the mental growth. You may want to take this into account when buying toys as well. The lego kits that are designed to build one specific thing eliminates a child’s creativity. A giant bag of randomly shaped and colored blocks allows a child to make it all up. That’s where the magic happens.
Now I pose a question to you. At what age do the benefits of play stop benefiting you? The answer: NEVER! Play is critical at any age! (Look around for evidence of "adults" who seem to have reduced executive function. You don't need to look far.) Dr. Stuart Brown, who studies play and has been working with Patch Adams (Yes, that Patch Adams) for over 20 years, found that lack of play, or “play deprivation,” is as important as other factors for predicting criminal behavior in murderers. Brian Sutton Smith, a play researcher, said, “The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression.”
When you are playing, your brain lights up BIG TIME. You are able to develop emotional bonds with people quickly and more effectively. You cultivate creativity, which can improve performance at work. The benefits just keep coming.
Ok, so you’re a busy grown up with a life and obligations. How can you possibly squeeze in some recess? Naturally, I have put together a list of ways to get started.
TAKE A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE. What did you like to do in your younger years? Make a list of what you come up with. What would you do during recess? What were your favorite pass-times? Your favorite games? Did you enjoy playing an instrument? Or a sport? Tetherball? 4-square? Climbing trees? Juggling? The playground? I suspect that as you make this list and reminisce, you are going to have butterflies in your stomach and a giant smile on your face like I do just writing this! That’s a good sign. It means this is working! You’re becoming more fun!
DO SOMETHING FROM YOUR LIST! If you enjoyed it back then, you are going to enjoy it now. And what’s even better is that, as an adult, you’re going to appreciate just how much you enjoy the things on your list. Scheduling yourself playtime once a week is a good start. Can you get in a daily recess? Once you start playing, that once a week plan is not going to cut it. (P.S. - If you love playgrounds, try not to creep out the kids/parents.)
TRY SOMETHING NEW. Now that you are comfortable with playing again, it’s time to broaden your horizons. Pick something you’ve never done before and give it a shot with zero expectations. Don’t try to be the best at it. Just enjoy trying. LARPing (Live Action Role Playing) seems bizarre and for nerds . . . UNTIL YOU TRY IT! It is SOOO much fun! But I wouldn’t know if I hadn’t tried. Join a drum circle. A sculpting class. Ping-pong club. Literally ANYTHING! As long as you’re having fun doing it.
LEARN FROM THE PROS. If you have children in your life, whether your own, a family member’s, or those of friends, take every opportunity to play with them. Let yourself enjoy and participate in whatever imaginary world it happens to be today. If you can hang with the professional players, you know you’re on the right track.
I hope you see this as more than just an informative article. This is a CALL TO ACTION! Call up your old friends and tell them you want to play whatever it is that you used to play. That is probably how you became friends in the first place! Rekindle those relationships. Kickstart your brain. START PLAYING AGAIN!