Play fosters creativity, thinking, social skills, collaboration — plus it’s so fun. So why are kids the only ones encouraged to do it?
I’m not talking about poker or mah-jongg, or dishing with your girlfriends over merlot, although those are enjoyable, too.
I’m talking about what experts call “free play” — the kind of self-directed, lose-yourself-in-the-moment play we associate with children. The kind of play that caused the late play advocate Brian Sutton-Smith to say, “The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression.”
This is the play advocated for kids and adults by Morgan Leichter-Saxby, coauthor of The New Adventure Playground Movement, who runs pop-up play adventures for kids around the world. And by Susan Caruso, director of the 25-year-old play-based Sunflower Creative Arts program for kids in Delray Beach, Florida.
I recently had the pleasure of spending time with these two experts, talking about why we adults miss out on so much fun — not to mention the opportunity for growth and development — and how we can take a page from our free-spirited children and let loose sometimes.
Here is an edited excerpt of our conversation:
Meryl: Why do you think it’s important for adults to make time to play?
Morgan: Well the main benefit, of course, is just to have fun, to find things you love to do and to do it — it’s the best part of life. But play is also important for other things, like healthy aging. We say that play helps kids with cognitive development, and what we mean by that is neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to carve new pathways. We adults need neuroplasticity, too. That’s why people who are vibrant and open to new experiences do better, in terms of autoimmune and degenerative diseases.
Meryl: I know experts talk about self-directed play. What does that mean exactly?
Morgan: Play that is freely chosen, that you’re in charge of completely, doing however and as much as you want.
Meryl: I imagine that kind of play is difficult for adults to feel they can indulge in.
Susan: Adults do have many psychological blocks. We remember when we played like that — we all have great memories of those times when we were young. But now we think, I’m a grownup, I can’t do that. So adults need permission to play. I was at a play conference [educating teachers who work with children on the importance of free play] and there was a setup for painting. The adults were tentative at first — “Do I have to paint anything specific?” “I need green and you don’t have it” — but when told they could paint anything they wanted, and make the green from the other colors, they got into it. It took the adults longer to get there, but they eventually did, and they all loved it.
Meryl: I assume it takes us longer because we fear we’ll be judged. I know I get nervous when I see painting supplies, because I feel I suck at painting.
Susan: We definitely censor ourselves. Or we’ll negate something that actually is our play and we don’t let ourselves fully enjoy it. It was only when I didn’t have access to my kitchen due to a home renovation that I realized, My gosh, that’s my play! That’s where I get to choose what to do, what to use, who to do it with, how to put it together — all the steps that are present in free play.
Morgan: When I see adults going through the process from cautiousness and excitement, it looks exactly like chronically play-deprived, often traumatized, children. These children are in a state of constant vigilance, where it’s not just permission to play they need, it’s permission to release something that has been on guard for a long time. In adults, that can manifest as permission to enjoy. That something isn’t for work, you’re not being graded, that you can just feel pleasure in — that’s very hard for a lot of adults.
And as Susan was saying, we often deny ourselves the pleasure of things that could be play. For instance, when you move into a new home, you get to decorate it, which is like building a fort. But we let the facts — that it comes with a mortgage, that we have to vacuum it — suck the playfulness out of it.
Meryl: So is play with rules and regulations, like Bunko or poker, not as good?
Morgan: I don’t want to shame anybody’s good time. Mah-jongg is like a pickup T-ball game; it’s an excuse to hang out with your friends. But I do think play that is more open-ended, more creative — or even destructive — is a deeper, more self-expressive outlet that is very powerful.
Susan: There is a different level of satisfaction that comes at the end when you’re creating something, versus at the end of a mah-jongg game or walking around the beach collecting shells. There’s this joy, this freedom, this ease of being in life that isn’t there if you’re required to do something specific. There’s a quote that I love that says, you can learn more about a person in an hour of free play than in a year of conversation.
Meryl: I know when I watch kids play, it almost feels spiritual, in terms of how present they are.
Morgan: That feeling of being both absolutely present and being subsumed into something larger than yourself, that is definitely present in play.
Meryl: When kids are playing, parents sometimes jump in and take over. Why do you think that happens?
Morgan: Somebody else having fun is incredibly attractive. The instinct when we see a child doing something beautiful or exciting or interesting is to insert ourselves into that moment. Plus, as adults we are also used to believing we have the right to do that.
Susan: Ouch. When I do pop-up play activities in the community, some parents get mad when I suggest they stay back and let their child build what they want out of the loose parts. But since we adults are incredibly play deprived, it can feel like I am taking away their one chance to play.
Morgan: Adults can make their own creation next to their child. Sometimes the child will want to then be a part of the adult’s idea — and that’s a beautiful way to connect — or sometimes not, and that’s also cool.
Meryl: How do you suggest we “play deprived” adults dip our toes in?
Susan: Adults often don’t feel entitled to play. So it’s helpful to recognize that you most certainly are. When you’re putting away your child’s blocks, maybe build something first. Or create something with loose parts [anything you have around the house used in a novel way] or splash around in water or mud. You may feel you don’t have time, but in some ways adults have more free time than our very-scheduled kids do these days.
Meryl: I recently heard a woman say she was going to invite her adult friends over for free play — no games, no rules, just fun.
Susan: That’s a great idea — a way of giving people permission.
Morgan: I tell adults to start by noticing how you feel, checking in with yourself at different points throughout the day: Am I enjoying this? Is there a way I can shift it to enjoy it more? If you’re stuck in traffic, maybe start singing in the car.
Another way is to remember what you used to love doing as a kid, although sometimes this is challenging for adults. The process of opening space for play in yourself can be quite confronting, because you actually show up for yourself. But it is so worth it.
Learn more about Susan Caruso and Sunflower Creative Arts at SunflowerCreativeArts.org.
Fine Morgan Leichter-Saxby’s blogs about play, her upcoming lectures and activities, and free resources at PopUpAdventurePlay.org.
Meryl Davids Landau is the author of the book of essays, Enlightened Parenting. Her new mindful women’s novel, Warrior Won, will be published in May, the sequel to her acclaimed novel Downward Dog, Upward Fog. Learn more about Meryl at her website or connect with her on Facebook or Twitter. You can watch her 2-minute video, 5 Tips for Being a More Enlightened Parent, on YouTube.