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.”
“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.