Say the word "childhood" and visions of another world come rushing to the surface: Peter Pan's Neverland, Alice's Wonderland, and the bounty of Narnia. What we most often associate with childhood are long afternoons when little was expected of us and when we were most permitted—even expected—to play. But what we're learning from leading researchers is that play is what helps us learn; it's what keeps us young and happy.
Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, says that play is important at every stage of life. "To look deeply at play," he says, "and to place it in evolutionary, biological, cultural and contemporary context is to partially answer the question, what, really does it mean to be fully human? Or, to state it another way, if play is lost or missing, in a complex changing and demanding world, are there serious negative consequences individually and culturally that affect all who miss out on it?"
To answer these questions, Brown has done extensive research across cultures and continents—in Africa, South America and the United States—with convicted murderers and with well-adjusted adults. His conclusion? Play is necessary for our entire lives.
We play with gravity when we jump up and down, we play as spectators when we watch a sport, and we play with our imagination when we enter into the realm of make-believe. Play creates an altered state where doing becomes more important than achieving. What's important is how we do what we do.
"We're designed to play throughout our lifetimes," Brown says. "We are the most 'plastic' of all creatures, and therefore the most playful."
"If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less," says Dr. Peter Gray, a psychologist at Boston College. Play sets social rules, supports creative impulses, and teaches life's most important lessons that are not necessarily taught in a classroom or at home. Or as Gray puts it, "You can't teach creativity; all you can do is let it blossom, and it blossoms in play."
Adults who deprive themselves of play lack a sense of vitality and optimism. They tend to feel stuck, and view themselves as victims of their circumstance rather than conquerors of it. Brown explains: "… play has sustained its presence by fostering deep engagement in the vitality of living one's life from within, and matching it to the opportunities and realities of the environment. To miss it is to miss the harvest of a well-lived life. Thus it contributes as part of its essential benefits to trust, empathy, sharing, cooperation, personal resiliency, self-regulation, sustained optimism and more, despite real world challenges that suppress limit its presence."
Play is the stuff of life. It is what gives us that joie de vivre. Without it the world can seem monotone and unforgiving. As play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith says, the opposite of play isn't work—it's depression. Play denotes possibilities; it's not possible to both be stuck and be in the mindset of play. Play makes us feel powerful; it shows us that we can create our own world. It is also hopeful, because hope lies at the center of every creation.
What is play? This is how Gray defines it:
1. Play is voluntary.
a. If someone is forcing you to do it, it's no longer play. You choose to participate; you decide both how to play and when to play.
2. Play is done for its own sake.
a. The reward is not external; the act of playing is its own accomplishment.
3. Play has a structure and agreed upon rules.
a. You can't use your hands in soccer if you're not a goalie.
4. Play requires an active imagination.
a. We need a vision from the place of possibility, and the willingness to carry out that vision.
5. Play calls for an alert mental state.
a. We have to be able to observe the world around us.
When you value the result more than the process, when efficiency and minimal effort are the goals, you are no longer playing—you are merely getting things done. When you have no rules and no structure, when the future is a blank slate, you are likely lost, but you certainly aren't playing. When you're hitting the snooze button on your intellect or when you stop paying attention you are no longer in a state of play.
If all this play is starting to sound like work, remember: Play is good for you. A Dutch study of video game players showed improvements in recall, cognitive ability and mood. Evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff calls play "training for the unexpected." Those who play are able to adapt to changing environments since play itself represents a changing environment. ''What is adaptive about play may be not only the skills that are a part of it but also the willful belief in acting out one's own capacity for the future,'' according to Sutton-Smith.
So, how can you play more? Start with how you liked to play in your childhood. Was it a board game? Blowing bubbles? Painting by numbers? The next step is to recreate that experience in a way that adapts to who you are today. It could pave the way to your Wonderland, including even a more rewarding career path!