“Humans are the biggest players of all. We are built to play and built through play. When we play we are engaged in the purest expression of our humanity.” Dr. Stuart Brown
One of the key concepts of this blog is “play.” This is because play is key. In short, play—or active fun—is one of the few things that make life worthwhile. Achievement, interpersonal relationships and self-actualization are also important, but it is play that forms the basis for these. But in my late 30s, I seem have now lost a lot of the playfulness I had as a kid, and I don’t think I am unusual in this respect. This atrophy of play as we grow up is due to a whole host of factors — increasing responsibilities, social pressures and the habits we pick up. The simple joy of play gets replaced by other important priorities, which are no way near as much fun.
Why is play important?
The effects of play are profound. In his book on play Dr. Stuart Brown notes;
“Researchers from every point of the scientific compass now know that play is a profound biological process. It has evolved over eons in many animal species to promote survival. It shapes the brain, and makes animals smarter and more adaptable. In higher animals, it fosters empathy and makes possible complex social groups. For us play lies at the core of creativity and innovation.”
I could give a long and well-referenced list of the benefits of play. It helps us improve brain functionality, stimulates our imagination and deepens our relationships. It is so important to child development that it has been recognized by the UNHCR as the right of every child. Play involves the use of creativity and development of imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional faculties. It also functions as a kind of sandbox in which the player can create and explore situations to master and practice new roles and skills. These new competencies lead to enhanced confidence and resiliency to face yet further challenges. In contrast to passive entertainment, play builds active, healthy bodies and minds. Unstructured play generally increases physical activity levels in children, which means play can be linked to increased health and longevity. Etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitum.
Permission to play
But the point of play isn’t self-development or to obtain better problem-solving skills. These are just positive side-effects. Similarly, we don’t recognize the value of play simply because it enables us to perform better at work. No way! What a depressing thought! Play is self-indulgent, unproductive and a glorious “waste” of time, by modern standards. Yet it is one of the most worthwhile activities of life and exemplifies what makes us human. In fact, using increased productivity, innovation, or any other such index to justify play is missing the point. Play in and of itself is the goal, and a life with more play is better, period.
So what if play leads to better relationships? Nice, now we have more people to play with. A fitter and longer life? Great! More time for play! More innovation and better performance? Awesome, increased scope for play!
As kids, we don’t need to learn or make and effort to play, we just do it. But at some point, something changes and we stop. The play that remains is highly structured, sterile and overly competitive. I think play is a skill and if you have read this far, you will understand how worthwhile I believe it to be. We need to exercise this skill, invest in it, and practice until it becomes second-nature once again! We have nothing to loose but our dull grey selves!
Keep it unreal
The context of this blog is performance in outdoor sports, so I will close with some thoughts on integrating play in outdoor sports. How does play influence performance in outdoor sports? The sportspeople who express and enjoy their sport as a form of play are the highest performers, or are well on the way to becoming so. Their joyful approach makes the activity intrinsically rewarding, which maintains motivation over the long-term, and their playful experimentation allows them to try and develop new approaches to their discipline.
But what if you are a serious sportsperson? Isn’t that an oxymoron? Viewed form the perspective of an objective observer, sports are indeed a puzzling activity. Climbers look for increasingly difficult ways to get to the top of rocks for no obvious reason. Skiers risk injury or death sliding around in inhospitable environments with some sticks strapped their feet. Ultrarunners expend massive amounts of energy to move ridiculously long distances in the fastest time possible in order to… er… no idea why, actually (answers in the comments please?). Sports are silly and inherently pointless; embrace that, own it, and play with it!
But OK, assuming for one minute you are serious about your sport, what would the difference be between you engaging in it with solemn focus, or you playing at being the elite sportsperson? If you were good enough at playing the part, would you not become that which you mimicked? One difference might be the attitude you bring: playful flexibility, joy, an experimental approach, more mental space…
Yes, play is a massively beneficial activity, but it is actually so much more. So play. Play more. Play more outdoors.