Having fun through play helps us learn, keeps us stress-free and healthy, helps create sound relationships, encourages workplace productivity…and is just plain fun.
by Wendy Priesnitz
I enjoy – truly love, most days – my work. In fact, you might say my work is my fun. At least that’s how I excuse working all the time and avoiding play.
I realized in midlife that I didn’t really know much about having fun through play and being silly. As the only child of serious parents who were middle-aged with health issues when I was born, I grew up with few role models for having fun. We hardly ever laughed out loud in my house, and I was encouraged to be quiet and unobtrusive. Maybe choosing the work of a writer, researcher, and editor was my unconscious way of ensuring I’d have an enjoyable life, even without play (which I found I couldn’t avoid once I had my own children). And maybe because I had so little of it as a child, I’ve always been interested in observing and researching fun and play – as they relate to all ages.
Does play always have to be fun? No. It can be spontaneous and silly, but it can also be focused and goal-oriented…not that those things aren’t necessarily enjoyable. However, play is usually associated with pleasure and enjoyment, and should be voluntary.
Play and Learning
As the parent of young children, and later in my work advocating for independent, informal education, I discovered how important having fun through play is to learning. Everything children do teaches them about the world, their place in it, and how to relate to it. Psychology professor Alison Gopnik calls children “scientists in the crib” because of their natural instinct to educate themselves. In their case, there is no difference between play and work, between learning and life. Psychologist and author Penelope Leach puts it this way: “For a small child there is no division between playing and learning, between the things he or she does ‘just for fun’ and things that are ‘educational.’ The child learns while living and any part of living that is enjoyable is also play.”
And, if children are allowed the freedom to continue to explore and experiment – to play in an unstructured manner – they will also learn the things we consider to be “academic” in nature through play. Homeschooling parents are familiar with this way of informal learning. In his wonderful book Free to Learn, Dr. Peter Gray presents research about how and why this works…and why the decline of play in our schools is harming children’s education. The same could be said for adult education, which is a high-stakes, expensive industry.
Play and Health
Play is also healthy. It offers a natural and satisfying sense of joy and calm, and re-learning to play can help motivate adults to adopt a lifestyle of health and well-being. Stress is one of the most prevalent health complaints of our time, and it can be managed and alleviated by having fun through play of various sorts.
Stuart Brown, a physician, psychiatrist, founder of the National Institute for Play, and author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, has made a career of studying the effects of play on people and animals. His conclusion is that play is no less important than oxygen. His study of thousands of people’s play histories, from murderers to Nobel Prize winners, has also convinced him that play is how humans learn empathy and to socialize – from the very first play interactions between mother and child to adult relationships between couples and co-workers.
Play and Work
Brown also believes that work and play are mutually supportive. Just as laughter is necessary for a healthy lifestyle, it is also necessary for a healthy workplace. People who enjoy their work and are able to have fun through play (appropriately) at work are more effective, efficient and productive, according to Canadian author and therapist (and cancer survivor) Catherine Fenwick. When we are feeling relaxed and positive, we get along better with others and do better work. She notes that a healthy sense of humor at work helps to keep things in perspective, facilitate change, build confidence, and boost morale.
An increasing number of companies are getting that message. In its July 2012 trend report Play As a Competitive Advantage, the marketing communications firm JWT highlighted how companies are injecting the idea of play into their business models and how marketers are promoting adult play in their messaging. High tech companies are at the forefront of that trend, and most of have read about how Google and its ilk have incorporated play into their facilities, with pool tables, lounges, cafés, patios, and even bowling alleys for employee’s use.
Unfortunately, many of us adults either don’t take the time to have fun through play or, like me, worry about looking silly while we’re having fun. That is the topic of an article in Natural Life Magazine by California philosopher Gene Sager, about how one group of friends has created for themselves the opportunity to be silly and foolish. And I think that’s something we could all do with more of.
Reaching Their Potential Through Mud by Ann Schuster in Natural Child Magazine, September/October 2011
The Curriculum of Play by John Taylor Gatto in Life Learning Magazine, May/June 2010
Junkyard Sports by Bernie DeKoven in Natural Life Magazine, May/June 2005
Where Does Spontaneity Go? by Wendy Priesnitz in Child’s Play Magazine
The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally by David Elkind (Da Capo Press, 2007)
The Art of Play: Helping Adults Reclaim Imagination and Spontaneity by Dr. Adam Blatner and Allee Blatner (Brunner/Mazel, 1997)