What Makes A Good Human?: Play

In talking about what makes a good human, I wanted to clarify that this series isn’t trying to focus on solely qualities that are only virtuous in the eyes of others but also on qualities that are good personally.  I believe that the goodness we display outward and our energy and drive to become better are fostered also by the good things we do for ourselves.  I also want to highlight qualities that I think we would be well served to promote in society in general.

Stress is a killer.  Even if it hasn’t killed you yet, it’s likely making you tired, irritable, and is causing you to develop less than healthy eating habits and/or overusing drugs.  The volume of literature on health problems associated with stress is large.  As a result I can’t “stress” the importance of play enough.  The dictionary defines play as “engagement in an activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.” Now I have a bit of a problem with this definition, because it depends on what is meant by practical. Reduced stress, happiness, and better health seem fairly practical to me. That being said I do understand the spirit of the dictionary definition since these tend not to be the reasons we play. We play because we want to have fun, so let’s look at what play is all about.

Now certainly when it comes to health there are many things we can do to improve our health, but not all of them qualify as play.  Exercise directly for the purpose of getting healthier, may be important, but often feels like work and doesn’t always reduce stress.  Although an overall sense of well-being can make the exercise feel worth it, but I would argue that it’s still not play.  Now one of the ways I like to exercise is by playing racquetball, because I find racquetball fun.  As a side product I also do get healthier, but if I had to jog to get healthy, it would feel like work and not play.  So as the definition states, play does have to be something you enjoy doing and that you find fun.  For most of us, our careers don’t count either.  Not that a career can’t be rewarding, fulfilling and bring happiness, but most jobs have at least some unpleasant parts, and a good deal of stress too, even if it is something you enjoy as a whole.

Leisure is a big part of play and I am sure some of my colleagues who teach recreation and leisure in my department could give me a more academic breakdown of the different types of leisure, but I don’t want to focus too much on that, but instead look at what makes leisure enjoyable. There is a difference in what one might call a leisurely activity and feelings of leisure.  There are plenty of people who take vacations, and probably spend half their time checking work e-mails etc, or sit there and worry about all the things they have to do when they get back.  I have been guilty of this myself, and in general it is not healthy.  One of the most important aspects of play, and therefore leisure, is that it must be an activity that absorbs you and allows you to live in the moment.

Life is, however, full of troubles and worries and these are often important and must be dealt with.  They often require a great deal of thought, planning, and energy.  And although hedonistic people tend to be the happiest, we can’t always afford to be that way.  So play is our escape; a way to lose ourselves in fun, joy, and pleasure.  No doubt the importance of play in life has been enhanced by having a child.  Play, for children, has been demonstrated to be extremely important.  More worrisome is that play for children has been declining.  As standardized testing continues to occupy more and more of a child’s time in the classroom and some school districts in the U.S. are not letting children play outside at temperature below 55 F (almost no kid in Canada would ever have recess), free play time is being eliminated or replaced with directed play, which is a developmentally important difference for children.  I remember recess play times where me and my friends would usually act out various cartoons, comics, TV shows, all taking different roles and of course those roles would get modified pretty significantly over the course of the recess break.  Every day was something different and for 15-30 minutes we were completely lost in what we are doing.  As the article I linked suggests play develops important social skills, and also children learn through play even if they don’t realize they are doing it.  Again this goes back to the spirit of the definition of play, it may seem like it is not serving a practical purpose but it is.  In playing with my child I find that I am laughing and losing track of time as well (at least until my toddler’s inexhaustible energy surpasses my own) and so playing with your child is not only important for them but also important for you.

As adults, play time is just as important.  This NPR article does a good job at looking at the different aspects of adult play and why it is important.  My favorite quotes from the article are:

“Play is something done for its own sake,” he explains. “It’s voluntary, it’s pleasurable, it offers a sense of engagement, it takes you out of time. And the act itself is more important than the outcome.”

And:

“I think it’s important for adults to be silly.”

I have long been a believer in the importance of silliness; like making silly faces, making silly motions or other slapstick-like comedy periods of complete nonsense, and giggling uncontrollably. Making others laugh and doing things that make us laugh is an extremely healthy activity.   Having people in your life that can make you laugh, or who have similar senses of humor can make life much richer and happier.  Playing games can also help keep adults sharp into old age, improving memory, coordination, and movement.  Adult play, as the article points out, can also involve sex.  You didn’t think I was going to leave sex out of this series did you?  While society tends to focus on the “love” aspect of sex (which is a limiting focus for sex, since sex and love are different biological drives) we also tend to forget that sex is fun.  You are in the moment and probably pretty happy during and after.

If there is a darker side of play, like any quality, it is letting it dominate your life.  We can’t play all the time, and as I mentioned there is time for being serious, feeling a little stress, and dealing with difficult situations.  But we can approach these situations fresher, more energetic and more skillfully when we do make time for play.  In the U.S. where leisure time is rapidly decreasing as we pursue the dollar over happiness it is ever more important that we make sure to make an effort to work play into our day.  I think inherently we all know this important but we let ourselves get swept away by the stresses of life and convince ourselves that we don’t have time.  Chances are you do and if you don’t think you do, start by literally trying to put “play” into your schedule.  I love playing racquetball and if I don’t block off that time for racquetball I will much more easily miss playing in favor of work.  By valuing play we not only help ourselves but we can also work to promote play in other areas of society, by giving children adequate playgrounds, by promoting play in school, and by making sure we do our best to help our friends and family play and have fun.

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20 thoughts on “What Makes A Good Human?: Play

  1. I love this! We have lost the art of “play.” People are so money hungry and power hungry they forgot to have good old fashioned fun and just goof off! I personally love me some completely ridiculous you tube videos and with the girls every day we dance to upbeat music and just act silly! It’s good for all of us you are right! More people should quit trying to be cool and just let loose every once in a while! It is therapeutic! 😊😎 good post!!

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  2. Hey Swarn,

    I read your excellent post yesterday, but wanted to take the time to read your links (which I did yesterday). Plus I got distracted by a fun “concert”. lol I really enjoyed reading the article about the importance of play for children’s development. I agree with you on all points about the importance of fun.

    Your post reminded me of a segment (around the 6 minute marker) in this RSA animated video I watched a few years back. Notice what happened when fun was added to the equation at work. 😉

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    1. Thank you Victoria, and great video! I agree with the science, and I would love to apply it, but I think for it to work well in education we need to change the model from the beginning of a child’s educational career. What I see, by the time they get to college are students who want to be directed, but at the same time have no motivation even when directed. It’s a difficult paradox to deal with as a professor. If on one hand I just give them a project and told them only that they needed to let’s say write a research proposal for setting up meteorological instrumentation to solve some meteorological problem, gave them two months and left it that. Most of them wouldn’t even look at the assignment until a week before and if they did they would be like “what problem”, “how long should it be?”, “what font size”,
      where do I go to research information”. They want to be able to see that carrot every step of the way, but if you give them enough rope to hang themselves, most of them will. Hell I think it would be an interesting exercise to say “Alright you are taking Atmospheric Fluid Dynamics. In the first week I want you to create the syllabus for the course. What are the concepts you need to know and how should you be assessed on your mastery of the concepts? I’d be called into the Dean’s office so fast for providing no structure to the class at all! Honestly with all the standardized testing that’s done now, students are so spoon fed it’s hard to break them out of that now.

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      1. So true. As you are aware, my brother-in-law is a professor, and his courses are hard — organic chemistry. He’s shown me a couple of the tests, and they are hilarious. He makes the questions fun. In his lectures, he uses humorous cartoon comics and graphics in his powerpoint presentations. Now, I realize you can’t always do this when educating, but a little creativity goes a long ways. When learning is associated with fun and creativity, the knowledge tends to stick and students seem to become more enthusiastic about learning. Our educational system is failing because so many students are bored shitless. The current educational system was designed and conceived for a different age — the 18th and 19th centuries. This is OT, but since you brought up education, I thought you might like watching this when you can spare 12 minutes.

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        1. I am known for telling good jokes in class, but I definitely need to work on my creativity. The video was great, but as it shows the paradigm shift has to start at the beginning, because they’ve become “damaged goods” by the time they get older, and our university doesn’t get the best students either. For instance we have a student coming in this fall, as our major, who has to take remedial math, even though my field is applied math and physics. I guess some of the concerns I have with the RSA video are mostly answered if we do reconstruct things from the very outset. However as a product of that old system it’s hard for me to completely understand how it doesn’t work. Getting a job was a very abstract thing for me, I just loved to learn and my parents valued education and thus I did too. Many of the students we get have parents that don’t. Studies also show that students perform quite well in good schools with well paid teachers, so while I think a paradigm shift is needed, there are so many other things that we could fix to give our kids a better chance. I also don’t like the idea that everything we learn has to have some clear application. Much of what we learn is foundational and has no direct application itself except to build on for more useful knowledge.

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          1. “but as it shows the paradigm shift has to start at the beginning,”

            Yes, I agree. I find it interesting, however, that 98% of the 5 year olds were at genius level in divergent learning. I remember kindergarten very well. It was one of the funnest years I ever had. We had learning stations, much like you see in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montessori_education education. I never went to college. School, for the most part, was very boring to me, and rarely did I have a good teacher who acted like they wanted to be there. I was in the top 10% of my class, but I was rarely challenged. I am an autodidact.

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            1. There are a ton of problems with the education system that would take far too long to discuss now, but I think his point about the devaluing of art in today’s education system is very important also. Maybe we do just have better schools in Canada!

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            2. Maybe we do just have better schools in Canada!”

              I have no doubt about that. One of my close friends is a teacher in Nova Scotia — where teachers are seen as professionals, respected, and paid well. Teachers appear to be valued in Canada. Here in America, they are treated as though they are at the bottom of the food chain, so-to-speak, and aren’t paid well.

              In Finland, they are considered to have the best educational system in the world, and I love their teaching methodologies. There are interesting documentaries about their educational system They are way ahead of the curve.

              “Since it implemented huge education reforms 40 years ago, the country’s school system has consistently come in at the top for the international rankings for education systems.

              But how do they do it?

              It’s simple — by going against the evaluation-driven, centralized model that much of the Western world uses.

              http://www.businessinsider.com/finlands-education-system-best-in-world-2012-11?op=1#ixzz3dMRqh0mu

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            3. I have read much about Finland and it sounds dreamy in education! I agree we need to do a whole lot better. I have read other studies too that talk about the fact that our scores compare well with Finnish students in richer school districts where schools are well equipped, and teachers are paid more, so I’m still of the belief that at least, in part, the system of delivery is just part of the problem and that educational equality and the value we place on education and learning as a society can play an equal role. We have neither in the U.S. and it’s troubling.

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            4. BTW it’s not apparent in the least that you didn’t go to college even though I knew from what you told me. This country as a whole doesn’t value education, and despite what the RSA video said, I honestly don’t think universities were ever set up for the purposes of getting a job, but slowly universities are turning into job factories, perhaps playing the role K-12 used to play more. But also the cost of tuition is generally so high here if you don’t get a job right out of school you are paying crippling debt. Part of the problem is also that guidance counselors tell everyone they should go to college, when many would be happier going to trade schools, make more money and be in debt less.

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            5. Thank you, Swarn. 🙂

              “Part of the problem is also that guidance counselors tell everyone they should go to college, when many would be happier going to trade schools, make more money and be in debt less.”

              Quite true — plus as you noted, it’s very difficult to go to college these days and not go into serious debt. We really do a lot of things backwards in America because profit, not people, is the main focus which has contributed to the huge inequality gab which is indicative of developing countries. I’ve read several studies showing that we are closing in on 3rd World country status.

              Btw, thank you for taking the time to watch the videos.

              Liked by 1 person

    1. If reading a post about play was somebody’s idea of play that didn’t understand the post anyway. 🙂 So we are lied to be serious while we talk about the virtues of play and any related topic that comes up. lol

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  3. I have long felt that just because you are an adult, does not mean you should forget what it was like to have fun. Especially if you have kids. Be silly, make jokes, shoot baskets, throw the football around, grab the ball, gloves and bat and visit the little league field in town. Go fishing, show them objects in the telescope and explain what they are and how far away. There are more things to do to have fun than I can count, leaving that behind for the sake of “growing up” sounds like hell to me.

    A grown up who has forgotten what it is like to be a kid is a boring old fuddy duddy.

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  4. Pingback: What Makes A Good Human?: Curiosity | Cloak Unfurled

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