Tag, you're it! It's time for your 30-minute break. Except rather than chase others around on the playground, you're spending your free time on the "real" stuff: checking more emails, scheduling personal appointments, and prepping for that 1 o'clock meeting. Is it really a break?
As responsibilities accumulate in adulthood, time becomes a scarce resource, and we deprioritize breaks—especially playful ones. Addressing the lack of play means confronting the question: What does it mean to live a good life?
"As we get older, play becomes seen as more frivolous," says veterinarian, author, and stand-up comic Dr. Caroline Brookfield. This perception discourages us from carving out time from "serious" stuff and dedicating it to "fun" stuff.
But play is a vital aspect of staying well for people of all ages, not just kids. It reduces stress, improves mood and resilience, fortifies our relationships, diffuses tension in our lives, and stimulates our body, mind, and—for the spiritual—soul. Evolutionarily, play may have helped adults maintain friendly relationships and promoted our species' survival—in other words, we're all made for lifetime play.
"Our best memories are usually moments of play," says Dr. Sonali Mantoo, a critical care physician, dancer, and educator. "It adds flavor to our lives, giving us a break from the mundane."
"We spend so much of our day just trying to 'get through' things," adds Dr. Jamie Jones Coleman, MD, a trauma and acute care surgeon at Denver Health and associate professor of surgery at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver. "Play is a way to bring us mindfulness, to enjoy the here and now. To not get lost in the 'thick of thin things.'"
What Is Play Anyway?
Definitions of play are flexible. As Kirsten Anderson, founder of Integrate Play Solutions, states, "There are as many definitions of the word 'play' [as there are of] the word 'love.'" However, organic play encompasses a few vital qualities: freedom, joy, and interactivity.
Freedom. Some play is structured, as exemplified by the rulebooks of games like Dungeons & Dragons. But we can break the rules in most types of play—your Tiefling can know 10 languages from the start of your campaign, have only one arm, or use a unique tool kit you create if you really want it to. Freedom refers not to a game's lack of guidelines but to the liberty to express ourselves without ridicule. As adults, embracing play means discarding the notion of permanent seriousness and understanding that others' perceptions are not within our control. Often, judgment stems from people's own insecurities, which we can ease by exemplifying the benefits of play ourselves.
Joy. You choose to engage in play because you like it. "Surprisingly, this may not always look like fun pleasure or enjoyment," says Ms. Anderson, "but a challenge." So, whether it's the relaxation of watercolor painting or the thrill of friendly, competitive sports, play satisfies you not by doing it for work, school, or other obligations but simply by doing it for its own sake. You go into play expecting to find gratification in the process instead of the result alone.
Interactivity. Play engages the body, mind, and—for spiritual people—the soul. That engagement between ourselves and the activity supports the other two elements of play (joy and freedom).
Both depression and perfectionism have been posed as the opposite of play. Whichever view you align with, both have something in common: each is characterized by a lack of pleasure or satisfaction. Meanwhile, play, by definition, constitutes something performed "for fun or enjoyment," according to the Merriam-Webster English dictionary. The verb form of "play" also references rewarding activities like music, games, and sports, implying its relationship with such qualities.
Is Play the Same for Everyone?
Consider this: Two people attend a painting class. One person—let's call him Marco—finds the course enthralling. Before he knows it, the 2 hours have passed, and it's time to pack, yet it's only felt like minutes. The other person—let's call him Alek—thinks painting is the most boring thing in the world. He spends the entire session lost in the supplies, tenser with each tick of the clock, and uncertain of how to spend his time. Is this class play for both of them?
No! Marco's experience meets all the criteria for fun, interactive, and freely expressed play. Alek, on the other hand, is miserable, disengaged, and begging for the session to end. Play isn't an action—rather, it's a mindset that we apply to an action based on our preferences and beliefs.
"The spirit of play is about following your instincts, finding joy in the moment despite possible failure or embarrassment, and learning new skills," Dr. Brookfield says. Although the fundamentals of play remain the same, how those instincts and skills manifest differs from person to person.
Can Work and Play Be the Same?
It's tricky to equate work with play because work is more restrictive, involuntary, and sometimes burdensome. However, some people enjoy all the elements of play in at least some aspects of their work.
Let's say the first person in our example, Marco, is an artist for a living. He's hired to paint an outdoor landscape—one of his favorite scenes to craft—but he's pretty busy. Fortunately, he's in no urgent need of cash and has the practical option to decline the contract. Instead, Marco chooses to negotiate a reasonable deadline and rate because he wants to take on the project. Could work be considered play in this instance? Let's revisit the criteria.
Free. Marco had the practical ability to decline the project if he wanted, and—as a painter—he'll have some creative freedom to add his flair to the piece. Additionally, he had the opportunity to set expectations that weren't overly stressful (i.e., that wouldn't detract from the gratification).
Fun. Marco enjoys painting and especially enjoys landscape painting. He's eager to get started and knows he'll enjoy both the process and the product. The challenge of getting details correct isn't a hindrance to fulfillment but an element of it.
Engaging. Because the project isn't asking for too much at once, provides creative leniency, and balances challenge with enjoyment, Marco finds the endeavor mentally stimulating instead of taxing.
While work isn't always playful, it's plausible to implement play into our work as a way to infuse meaning and motivation. It's all about how you balance obligation with voluntary, enjoyable, and stimulating pastimes.
Why Don't You Play?
If play is crucial for our well-being, why don't we participate more often? Many of us could cite at least a couple of reasons, such as stigma or time and space restrictions. Consider the following contributors and whether they apply to your own life.
Stigma against being "unproductive." Informal polls of clients conducted by Ms. Anderson, founder of Integrate Play Solutions, and her team suggest that fear of judgment is a primary reason adults avoid play.
Lack of resources, including time. We tend to pile on obligations and stress when we're older—we reckon it's a part of growing up. Eventually, the availability of resources dedicated to play dwindles, as does our willingness to accommodate play in such a crowded schedule.
Wrong space, wrong time. "Is playfulness frivolous? Unprofessional? Inefficient? Not all spaces we enter into embrace play," says Caitlin Quarrington, an educator, researcher, writer, and mental health advocate with a master's degree in critical care. "It can be hard to decide to be playful even when we know its benefits."
Stuck in our routine. We may play without really getting into it, or we may not dedicate enough effort to prioritizing it. "Play itself requires a playful mindset," says Dr. Brookfield. "There are people who 'play' ping-pong without really embracing the spirit of play, checking the boxes without embracing the experience."
Taking Recess as an Adult
Whether we're 18 or 88 years old, we can always find "better," more "productive" things to do. However, suppose we escape this frame of mind that regards production and emotional gravity more than anything else. In that case, we discover a profoundly fulfilling life that balances the necessary aspects with the delightful. What can we do to get there?
While much of the play void is systemic, there are ways for individuals to alleviate the pressure.
First, we need to foster psychological safety. "The ironic thing," Ms. Anderson says, "is that humor and small risks of incremental play can build trust and safety with others." In other words, creating the security necessary to dismantle stigma requires initially stepping out of it. It can start with "addressing our own attitudes about play," says trauma and acute care surgeon Dr. JJ Coleman, attitudes that can then disseminate to those around us.
Second, we must prioritize play. This doesn't suggest neglecting responsibilities—instead, this could start as simple as dedicating a few minutes each evening to your hobbies. "I found it useful to schedule it in until it became second nature," says Dr. Sonali Mantoo, a critical care physician, dancer, and educator. You may also find it helpful to make your family, friends, or other social time double as playtime if you're extraordinarily strapped for minutes.
Lastly—and perhaps most vitally—set up an environment that enables play. Separate your workspace from your quiet space, for instance, or arrange your desk near a window to remind you to venture outside more often. "Offices aren't always conducive to play," says Ms. Quarrington. "Conversely, children's museums remove barriers to play, encouraging interaction that feels both natural and compelling."
Push for the institutional changes necessary to create this environment, such as funding city recreation departments or restructuring the average workday. Workplaces and schools can incorporate places or routines for quiet free time where employees and students don't feel watched or pressured to continue being productive.
The point is to savor it. "Sit in the moment," Dr. Brookfield adds. "Experience the joy of play without having to label it."
The Future of Playfulness
So, what is the future of play? Author, speaker, comedian, and founder of Keeping It Human, Kathy Klotz-Guest, thinks we'll redefine the fundamentals of adulthood itself by weaving play into work. "I am excited for what's happening," she says. "We are at the beginning of redefining work and what a healthy workplace looks like. That means 'work as play,' it means 'recess' where we just have organic play, it means being play-like as we do our work."
In a similar vein, Dr. Mantoo believes that we'll revise the value we attribute to play itself. "Social conditioning has me derive satisfaction if play is tied to performance and/or achievement," she explains. Social media, she posits, can do wonders for playfulness by "teaching us it's okay to be goofy for the heck of it."
Others think we'll reorganize the roles of work and play. Ms. Quarrington expects that we'll normalize play "for all ages, and [that] playfulness will be seen as a strong trait to bring to spaces we work and live in."
Kaishin Chu, an advocate for the Design Thinking mindset, adds that she hopes we will foster more "psychological safety for all ages and hands-on interactive play," which she believes nurtures "connection, joy, ease … and harmony within ourselves and with others."
Ms. Anderson supposes play will become more autonomous—individual—and continue to involve technology. She says embracing generational differences, including technological advancements, is an essential aspect of embracing play. So long as we balance it with our natural inclination toward the outdoors, she doesn't note a problem with video games, virtual reality, and other digitized play.
Fenway Jones, founder of Jasper's Game Day—a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to suicide prevention—agrees. "I think in the future play will have the same bases as it does now," she says. "But I think the gaming industry will become a bigger and bigger part of play."
As an extension of the gaming concept, Dr. Brookfield sees "a future of gamification of training and play as a more organic part of our workday as opposed to scheduling and distinction between 'work' and 'play.'"
Play incorporates itself increasingly into our lifestyles as we address mental and physical well-being in adulthood. What prevents you from taking up play? What do you think the future of play will be? Will it be integrated into work, or will we designate separate spaces?
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