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What is adult play? (And why you shouldn’t Google it at work)

13 July 2021

What is play anyway? When we talk about play, we aren’t talking about simply being silly. True, authentic play is joy-filled, but it isn’t trivial. Play is as critical to our health as sleep or nutrition. Play is any activity that you enjoy, and is unique to you as your fingerprint. It always has a purpose (whether to achieve an outcome in mind, or simply to feel good in the moment). Play enables us to enter a state of flow, where we are totally absorbed in whatever it is we are doing and are fully present in that activity.

Why is it so important? When we integrate play into our everyday lives, it reduces stress, provides balance and sparks creativity. It encourages our brains to be flexible, allowing us to switch between different tasks easily. It enhances our social awareness and connections with others, meaning that play supports our wellbeing, happiness and performance at work. It is time to take play more seriously. It shouldn’t be seen as the opposite of work or “real life”. Play can exist in everything we do. “Opposing work and play, as so many of us do, I embraced work to inform my sense of identity and self-esteem. I saw play as something for creatives, ‘playful people’ or children (i.e. definitely not me),” reflects Tzuki Stewart, co-founder of Playfilled.

How do we recognise play? Play is different for everyone. It could be a particular activity such as hiking a mountain, catching a ball, designing a poster, programming or collecting seashells. Or it could be an experience, how something feels, or even a mindset. 

“The self that emerges through play is the core, authentic self.” – Dr Stuart Brown, 2009.

What are your play preferences? Discovering and then embracing your play preferences (or how you like to play) is the first step toward unlocking your human potential. Play preferences, inspired by the work of Dr Stuart Brown, can change throughout your life.

If you think about what play looks like for you, it can be helpful to start with thinking about different verbs. How about exploring – do you love to travel, learn new things, seek out information, or lose yourself in research? Perhaps creating – a love of design, having an eye for details, restoring or developing something, or just creating something of beauty for yourself. Moving is play for those of us who seek out every opportunity to push our bodies through adventure, sports or fitness aims. Curating brings joy to those who find themselves drawn to collections; of items, facts, or even experiences. Or how about directing – where organising, planning events, coordinating projects and bringing people together to achieve something great may look like work for some, but is play to you? Competing, entertaining and storytelling are other examples of play preferences for some (and not others) which can create amazing opportunities for finding more play within our work.

“No single phenomenon reflects the positive potential of human nature as much as intrinsic motivation.” – Ryan & Deci, 2000

What happens when we play? Play allows us to imagine and experience simulated situations; this in turn prepares us for future possibilities, inviting us to learn lessons and skills without being at direct risk. This makes us more resilient as humans. Connecting with our personalised play preferences allows us to reframe our work in a way that aligns to what play is for each of us individually, making work more intrinsically motivating and opening us to new ways of thinking about the big questions we are facing across the world. 

Entire industries like aerospace engineering, and companies like Harley-Davidson, were founded by play rather than by planned instrumental activity. One could even say that the entirety of Silicon Valley is simply a byproduct of individuals playing together. – Mainemelis and Ronson, 2006.

When people find their play preferences their activities are joy-filled, powerful and purposeful. Everyone has play within them–it is about unlocking what you enjoy and what sparks your human potential and makes you flourish. It’s not just about slides and ball pits. 

Play scholar Bernard DeKoven once said “When I talk and write about a Playful Path, I’m neither talking nor writing about how we can or should become playful, because we already are. Or how we can become more playful, because our playfulness is immeasurable. I’m talking, rather, about trusting our playfulness, believing in our playfulness, having faith in our playfulness, letting ourselves be guided by our playfulness – because our playfulness will lead us back to life itself. All of life.”

So: how do you like to play? When was the last time you did something you deeply enjoyed? Experiment with noticing when you are at play this week, and make a note of how you felt afterwards. We’d love to hear about how you get on!
P.S. We learned from our early research attempts to search for “play in adulthood” rather than “adult play.” Probably best to leave it there…

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