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Playful self-portrait of the author
Self-portrait, Cecil Decker

Free-Range Adulting

Alright, I know. Free-range adulting sounds silly. Stick with me.

When was the last time you played really and truly played, just for fun, just for yourself? When was the last time you sat down with a coloring book? Can you still make a paper airplane? Maybe you’ve opened up Angry Birds, but when was the last time you separated yourself from bills/deadlines, and just played? I can’t say I’ve done it recently.

In the Studio Services department our job is play. If you think that’s an oxymoron, trust me I wake up thinking that sometimes. But, figuring out how to get us grown-folks off the grind and chill out takes a lot of brain power. Kids play. Cats and dogs play. Octopi play (yes, really).

Here’s five reasons why you should take a few moments every day to play. Seriously. Every day.

1. Play reduces stress.

I know what stresses me out: rent, my credit card, making sure I have groceries. (did I take the trash out? is that mold in the windows? is that work project going to get done?) What does it take to shed this anxiety?

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about “flow,” a mental state where you feel comfortable with your skills, and challenged to do something. In the moment of flow, we experience freedom from time, and a diminished consciousness of self which are two vital components of play. Anything can help get us into flow. Writing a piece of music, playing a game of poker, watching a compelling film, painting, going for a run, skiing, talking to a friend…

Basically anything.

The key is we are doing something for the sake of doing it, no goals. And hey, it’s not new information, physical activity reduces stress. More recent research also says video games can help lower stress. No matter what kind of play you do, you’re going feel better!

2. Play makes us smarter.

Maybe it’s obvious play is fun, so of course we feel good doing it. But did you know it makes us smarter? Yeah.

Don’t take my word for it though. In his book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Dr. Stuart Brown breaks down the way play sculpts the brain. Through neuroscience research (that I literally can’t even pretend to read), scientists discovered animals who play often quickly learn how to navigate and adapt in the world. The more we do it, the more we stimulate our frontal cortex AND cerebellum. These parts of the brain control functions like processing information, organizing our thoughts, feelings, planning for the future, attention, language, sensing rhythm, and more.

Imaginative activity helps create new possibilities, forging new cognitive connections. From Play:

By living through Rick and Ilsa’s doomed romance in Casablanca, we learn a little bit about love and how to live our lives with honor and a sense of irony when love is lost. … When we experience a new physical challenge like learning to ski, we may find that the things we learn on the slopes like avoiding falling by keeping our weight forward and committing to the turn may come to mind during business negotiations as important reminders to press forward and commit to the deal or fail.

3. Play makes us more empathetic.

Public play is central to making communities. Now, I like my alone-time, but there’s a lot of valuable social play activities. How much, how often, and what kinds of play we engage in can drastically affect (negative or positive) our ability to empathize with others.

When we’re playing, we create simulations. We create separate little worlds. In play theory (I won’t make you read everything), this is called the "magic circle". When we play together, we learn how to talk to each other, how to tell what others are feeling. We learn the difference between teasing and taunting; when to push, when to apologize. The magic circle functions as a place we improvise and learn from/with/for each other.

Without the collaborative improvisations we forge in the magic circle, interactions can get sticky. We miss social cues, blur friend & foe things get awkward.

4. Play creates a failure-free zone for discovery.

Failure is scary. Often, the number one road-block to creativity is fear of failing, of not being good enough. Stuart Firestein’s Failure: Why Science Is So Successful frames successful failures as “those that leave a wake of interesting stuff behind: ideas, questions, paradoxes, enigmas, contradictions.” In science, failing is the goal. If your hypothesis is true, you collected data. If it’s false, then you found something new!

If failure is the seedbed for discovery, why is it still no fun? Well, for me, no matter how rationally I look at it, failing causes anxiety. One integral function of the magic circle is to create a space where failing does not feel like failing. The same freedom from time, which helps us reduce every day stress, doubles as a ticket off the fail-train. Once failure is off the brain, creativity flows.

5. Play is subversive.

The great thing about simulations is they let us try out new ideas that might not be okay in the “real” world. You can try out a version of your world, or yourself, that doesn’t play by the rules. Driving cars into buildings, gender bending, deconstructing reality…

Subversive play, or "unplay", might not seem as crucial as the previous points reducing anxiety, improving your brain functions, creating empathy, or discovering new ideas. But, this mode of critical play lets you look beyond what is possible, into what is acceptable. Unplay is important because it creates an ability to push past your culture and immerse yourself in a new world.

This new unplay-world could place you in a dystopian zombie apocalypse to explore morality. Or, maybe you play the opposite gender in an online game to feel how others navigate life. Any situation where there is a rule, law, or social guideline preventing you from experiencing or knowing something can be unplayed in the magic circle.

Additional Resources:

Here’s a few more things you can read about the importance of play. Me? I'm going out to play y'all.

Play and the Human Condition Thomas S. Henricks
Critical Play Mary Flanagan
The State of Play Daniel Goldberg & Linus Larsson (ed.)
Play Makes Us Human IV: When Work Is Play Peter Gray

Amazon Says: Read Stuart Brown's posts on the Penguin Blog. From a leading expert, a groundbreaking book on the science of play, and its essential role in fueling our happiness more...
Amazon Says: Read Stuart Brown's posts on the Penguin Blog. From a leading expert, a groundbreaking book on the science of play, and its essential role in fueling our happiness and intelligence throughout our lives We've all seen the happiness on the face of a child while playing in the school yard. Or the blissful abandon of a golden retriever racing across a lawn. This is the joy of play. By definition, play is purposeless, all-consuming, and fun. But as Dr. Stuart Brown illustrates, play is anything but trivial. It is a biological drive as integral to our health as sleep or nutrition. We are designed by nature to flourish through play. Dr. Brown has spent his career studying animal behavior and conducting more than six-thousand "play histories" of humans from all walks of life-from serial murderers to Nobel Prize winners. Backed by the latest research, Play (20,000 copies in print) explains why play is essential to our social skills, adaptability, intelligence, creativity, ability to problem solve and more. Particularly in tough times, we need to play more than ever, as it's the very means by which we prepare for the unexpected, search out new solutions, and remain optimistic. A fascinating blend of cutting-edge neuroscience, biology, psychology, social science, and inspiring human stories of the transformative power of play, this book proves why play just might be the most important work we can ever do. less...

Amazon Says: The general public has a glorified view of the pursuit of scientific research. However, the idealized perception of science as a rule-based, methodical system for accumulating more...
Amazon Says: The general public has a glorified view of the pursuit of scientific research. However, the idealized perception of science as a rule-based, methodical system for accumulating facts could not be further from the truth. Modern science involves the idiosyncratic, often bumbling search for understanding in uncharted territories, full of wrong turns, false findings, and the occasional remarkable success. In his sequel to Ignorance (Oxford University Press, 2012), Stuart Firestein shows us that the scientific enterprise is riddled with mistakes and errors - and that this is a good thing! Failure: Why Science Is So Successful delves into the origins of scientific research as a process that relies upon trial and error, one which inevitably results in a hefty dose of failure. In fact, scientists throughout history have relied on failure to guide their research, viewing mistakes as a necessary part of the process. Citing both historical and contemporary examples, Firestein strips away the distorted view of science as infallible to provide the public with a rare, inside glimpse of the messy realities of the scientific process. An insider's view of how science is actually carried out, this book will delight anyone with an interest in science, from aspiring scientists to curious general readers. Accessible and entertaining, Failure illuminates the greatest and most productive adventure of human history, with all the missteps along the way. less...