The expert view: How much play should we have in our lives?

Play may be the universal language of childhood but according to psychologists, we can also benefit from it in our adult lives. The question is, do you have enough play in your life? 

What is play?

We all know what play is, but putting it into words? That’s harder than it might seem. It can be physical games where we exert energy, but it can also be games that test us mentally. It can be role play where we escape our own realities and it can also describe a ‘state of mind’ and the way we approach things in real life.

In many ways, play is any activity we engage in for our own entertainment and pleasure, while others claim play is the universal language of childhood.

The question is, what do you know about play? And is play present in your own life?

The psychology of play in childhood

One thing that pretty much every psychologist agrees on is that play is vital in a child’s development. In the research paper Play in Children’s Development, Health and Well-being, Jeffrey Goldstein of Utrecht University notes that play is "intrinsically motivated" and it "stands outside ordinary life".

In the paper, Goldstein touches on research that found the availability and variety of toys in infancy has a direct link to a child’s IQ. And quoting O. Fred Donaldson, he says play in childhood "promotes joy, which is essential for self-esteem and health".

Even pretend play - where children act out fantasies or different social situations - can offer a wealth of benefits for the young mind. It helps develop their social skills and understanding of social rules, emotional competence, cognitive development and relationships with others. In short, it’s widely agreed that play during childhood is essential for reaching our full potential in adult life.

The psychology of play in adulthood

Many people would say that if we get enough time to play in childhood, then why on earth do we need to play in adult life? But writing for Psychology Today, Hara Estroff Marano notes that humans are among the few animals that play in adulthood as there’s actually an evolutionary need for it.

In fact, the more complex the brain is, the more chance that species will engage in play, as it sets them up for behaviour in later life. What’s more, adults who play could even live longer lives than those who don’t. That’s enough to make you dig out the Lego.

Read: Is forced fun as counter-productive as we'd imagine? 

Even if you don’t believe that play is going to give you more time on the planet, it’s fair to say that it does our grey matter an awful lot of good. When you look at the theory in Neuropsychology, it suggests the human brain never stops developing. Thanks to what psychologists refer to as neuroplasticity, the human brain has the capacity to continue developing new neural pathways right up into our senior years. And engaging in play helps with this.

Here’s a great example - look at the recent health reports in the news that show brain-training games could be the key to preventing dementia. So, just as play can help initiate brain growth and understanding of the world in our early years, it can help us develop and maintain our cognitive functioning in later years too.

What’s stopping you being more playful?

The barrier for many of us is that culturally we’re averse to embracing our inner child, says Mark Seabright, executive coach and trainer and author of The T'ai Chi Way to Business Success. He says this is partly because a lot of play involves "allowing ourselves to fail".

"We all know that as children we learn through play and we are willing and happy to learn by trial and error," he says. "Yet throughout adolescence and adulthood, this curiosity becomes restricted by our self-judgement, in the form of embarrassment, reticence, and simple lack of self-awareness.

"We worry about failing and we are less inclined to experiment or learn by trial and error as we become more judgemental of ourselves and others."

Yet we’re doing our ‘creative minds’ an injustice by doing this, Mark says. "[A playful mind set] helps us to connect with the right-side of our brain and the creative and innovative side of ourselves, instead of just the logical, rational left side of our brain."

Is it time to awaken the playful side of you?

The amount of play we incorporate into our adult lives may also differ between individuals. But when we do decide to embrace it, many psychologists agree it will take on a very different nature to the type of playful behaviour we displayed in our early lives. As Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College, points out, play becomes more a 'state of mind' linked to motivation and mental attitude

"…we tend to talk about children ‘playing’ and about adults bringing a ‘playful attitude’ or ‘playful spirit’ to their activities,” he says. More often than not, play in adulthood is usually blended with other motives," he writes in Psychology Today.

Some adults find it harder than others to embrace play and our level of playfulness can depend on our personality traits. Zabelina & Robinson for example, asked a group of undergraduates to carry out a creative activity based on what they would do "if school had been cancelled for the day". Participants who were asked to imagine themselves as seven year olds scored more highly on creativity. Yet, they also found that highly introverted people (who typically find it harder to embrace their more playful side) found this mind set particularly effective.

What are the therapeutic effects of playfulness in adulthood?

Another popular topic around play is the therapeutic effect it can have on us in adulthood. As Gray points out, "play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind" and it’s this mental state of play that many behavioural scientists call ‘flow’.

You don’t need to look very far to see that ‘flow’ has become a bit of a buzzword lately. Psychotherapist Jannah Walshe explains how "being in the flow" can bring about much more enjoyment in our work life. And through this TED Talk and his book Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discusses how the notion of flow could be the key to lasting happiness.

Further research even suggests that playfulness could act as essential armour in our pressured lives. The study ‘The Playful Advantage’ for example, found that playfulness may provide us with ‘specific cognitive resources’ that help manifest effective coping behaviours among young adults. What’s more, those who think of themselves as more playful also report lower levels of stress.

Playfulness in the workplace

We’re all familiar with the old proverb "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy". And as Richard Branson notes, why should we separate the two?

If you look at the likes of Silicon Valley start-ups - who have disrupted the traditional office format with employee pool tables, putting greens, bowling alleys and even giant slides - it seems the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive at all. But what are the benefits of this, aside from generating really great PR appeal?

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"Employees who have ‘fun’ at work are far more likely to report higher levels of psychological wellbeing than those who do not," Paul Harris wrote in HR Magazine. What’s more, he claims they are "more motivated, better at collaborating with others, more supportive of their colleagues, more committed and less absent" from work.

Many people have critiqued the ‘playpen office’. BBC Culture’s architecture and design critic Jonathan Glancey for example, notes how zany office designs have even made their way over to Blighty with companies like Duffy of London bringing the ‘playground into the boardroom’ by swapping meeting chairs for swings.

Editor's letter: Payal Kadakia on why we should play more

But as he notes, perhaps we don’t need to go as far as installing a slide in our office to embrace creativity and play. There may be other ways of doing it.

How to incorporate play into your business

Rather than following the ‘beanbags and ping pong trend’, which is being widely questioned, many companies are turning to events organisations like Wildgoose who design treasure hunts, interactive events and orientation challenges to boost playfulness levels among employees.

One of the most innovative forms of play that Wildgoose apply in their work is an award-winning app and technology platform which uses interactive maps, image recognition technology and GPS hotspots to curate multimedia challenges. Sean Clark, Learning Consultant at Wildgoose says that through applying these tech methods of play, they’ve helped clients develop leadership skills and even overcome nervousness around presenting.

"Our games and workshops are designed to develop people through learning new skills, such as presenting and influencing or creative problem solving," says Sean.

"Learning through gameplay and physical application has been shown to significantly increase learning retention and neuroplasticity, meaning that our participants come away from our programmes being able to better adapt their ways of working at a deeper level."

Finding the play that works for you

How we maintain this level of play once we’re back in the office and in our everyday lives may be more of a challenge, especially if you work for a business that’s reluctant to break traditional business boundaries. But as Gray notes, perhaps it can simply start with easing the pressure a bit on our employees.

"Strong pressure to perform well inhibits creativity and learning by focusing attention strongly and narrowly on the goal, thereby reducing the ability to focus on mean," Gray says. "When we pressure students to do well on their schoolwork by constantly evaluating their work, we put them into a non-playful, goal-directed state…"

Achieving goals is great but as many of these studies have shown, exercising our ‘playfulness muscles’ is just as important. Whether you embrace a more playful attitude at work, allow yourself to fail more or practice finding your ‘flow’, it’s time more of us embraced our inner child. After all, it’s in our DNA.

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