“The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression” – Dr. Stuart Brown, National Institute for Play.
Play is serious.
Play, joy, glee, fun. These don’t sound like serious words. They sound small, childlike and maybe a little silly. Yet play is integral to our well-being—essential for learning, understanding the world and building resilience. There are serious risks to play deprivation, including losing our sense of optimism, straining our relationships and limiting our ability to cope with stress. Play isn’t just for kids—it’s something to practise and protect lifelong.
How much play time do adults get?
The most recent national time use study in Canada (pre-pandemic) reveals that the average amount of time adults (25 and up) spend on leisure activities each day is 4.7 hours. Various age categories experienced different amounts of leisure time, with those 65+ having the most (almost 7 hours per day) and 35-44 year olds having the least (3.4 hours per day). Of that average leisure time, over two hours per day is spent watching television or videos, one hour on socializing, 32 minutes using technology, 22 minutes on arts and hobbies, 20 minutes reading or listening to music or radio, 18 minutes on active sports and seven minutes on religious and organizational activities. But how much of that leisure time, is quality play time?
Unfortunately… watching TV doesn’t count as play.
The biggest portion of our leisure time is spent on TV and video watching, but unfortunately this doesn’t meet the definition of play. With passive watching, interaction is limited and the storyline itself is set by someone else. While it can be gratifying, it isn’t necessarily play. This begs the question…
What is play, anyway?
Peter Gray, psychologist and play expert defines play this way: “Play is activity that is (1) self-chosen and self-directed; (2) intrinsically motivated; (3) guided by mental rules; (4) imaginative; and (5) conducted in an active, alert, but relatively non-stressed frame of mind.”
We need to want to play and to choose our own kind of play. It needs to engage our imagination, and it needs to be fun. Play is more about the process than the outcome—it’s about losing sense of time and getting immersed in whatever activity is playful for us.
How to play—seven different ways:
Play is very individual, however Dr. Stuart Brown and the National Institute of Play have outlined seven different kinds of play patterns. What kind of play do you do?
- Body and movement: Dancing, riding a bike, tossing a frisbee—these types of play actively allow us to explore the world and express ourselves physically.
- Attunement: A building block for play in babies, attunement is what happens when we connect deeply with another person and are aware of and responsive to them. Ever tried to make a loved one crack a smile, just with a look? This kind of non-verbal connection is essential to relationships.
- Object: This play type involves manipulating toys objects or toys—tinkering, playing billiards and doing puzzles are all examples.
- Imaginative: In imaginative play we get to explore different ways of being. We do this while day dreaming, in role playing games or mystery theatre.
Social: There are three kinds of social play:
- Friendship and belonging: e.g., joking around with friends, playing truth or dare flirting.
- Rough and tumble: think contact sports, physical pranks or playing chase with your dog.
- Celebratory: e.g., parties and all the other ways we playfully mark social occasions.
- Storytelling and narrative: Humans are storytellers and one of the ways we play is through story. Examples include playing Dungeons and Dragons, creative writing, reading and swapping yarns with your auntie.
- Creative: Playing music, making art, building a robot, woodworking, baking, playing around in a Makerspace or any other time you are creating for fun.
Lots of activities combine these play patterns together. In considering videogames and board games, for example, we can see how they might tap into many different play patterns from this list.
What kind of player are you?
Did you know there are play personalities? Play expert, Stuart Brown, identifies eight types of player: The Maker, The Joker, the Competitor, the Director, the Storyteller, the Collector, the Kinesthete and the Explorer.
Do you love practical jokes? Do you love to organize parties? Do you love to explore new places or ideas? Did you have a rock collection as a kid? The ways we loved to play as children are tells for the kind of player we likely are today.
Want to learn more about play?
EPL is here to help you explore your playful side. Check out:
Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart L. Brown
The bible on play, by play expert Dr. Stuart Brown, whose work is explored in this blog post.
Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness by Ingrid Fetell Lee
How might we shape out outer world to allow for more play? This brilliant book written by designer Ingrid Fetell Lee explores how the physical world can shape our moments of inner joy. Play is one of the ten aesthetics of joy she identifies.
Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games by Ian Bogost
How much fun are you having while doing the dishes? In this book, game designer and philosopher Ian Bogost, explores how anything can become a game—including life’s most boring activities—by adopting a playful mindset.
Playful Intelligence: The Power of Living Lightly in A Serious World by Anthony T. DeBenedet
How do we take ourselves less seriously when adulthood is full of serious stress and responsibility? In his book, physician and researcher Dr. Anthony T. DeBenedet explains how we can boost joy by embracing five playful bahaviours: imagination, sociability, humor, spontaneity and wonder.
Additional online resources to explore:
- Stuart Brown’s TED Talk: Play is more than fun, it’s vital
- American Journal of Play: current articles and all back issues can be read free online.
- Washington Post article: “Why it’s Good for Grown Ups to Go Play”
- What type of video gamer are you? Check out the profiles and take the quiz at Quantic Foundry
- Blog articles on play by Scott G. Eberle, the former editor of the American Journal of Play.
- 2017 Alberta Recreation Survey—the latest survey on what Albertans get up to in their free time