In Search Of Play: The Childish Way To Increase Happiness and Productivity

Cory Firth, FDP
Jul 16, 2019 · 8 min read
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It doesn’t matter how old you are: we all need to make time for play. This statement in itself is nothing revolutionary. Play has long been recognized as vital to our physical and mental well-being. What is new is that our desire to make time for this play is being increasingly drowned out by the static-screen techno-buzz of our lives. The constant state of being ‘on’. Powered up. Ready to go. This makes turning our attention to the realm of play-that sphere in which we can rest our minds and develop ourselves through pure, blissful dormancy-extremely difficult.

But play is a mindset, and like any mindset, it can be developed. It just needs to be nurtured. The truth is, in my opinion, that we’re all longing for that child-like fun. We are now building adult summer camps so we can unleash our childhood nostalgia. In Brooklyn an adult preschool has popped up where you can participate in arts and crafts and even show and tell. A few years ago the hottest Christmas gift for your Mom was an adult colouring book. In the UK they have a ball pit studio designed for adults to clown around in and in India “ laughter clubs” are forming for their bored, disconnected citizens to engage in the worlds universal language. We all want to have a little fun, but unfortunately we’ve been conditioned to prioritize work over play, and some of us never get that playtime back.

The Culture of Play

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Norwegians call it Friluftsliv -”open air life”, in which people immerse themselves in nature, the outdoors and joyful recreation. In fact, the Norweigan culture of play and exploration in nature is actively encouraged from primary school all the way up to graduate studies. Friluftsliv is embraced as a way to create awareness of and respect for the natural world, but also, to champion personal development and balance.

The concept of friluftsliv dates back over a hundred years, so it’s nothing new. Not to Norwegians, anyway. A play-model adopted more closely to home is loose parts play. Loose parts play is used with children, but has real-world application to adults, especially as it applies to stimulating creativity and innovation. You’ll see it in a lot of tech companies where developers play with lego, play-doh and other desk toys. Defined as using open-ended, synthetic or natural materials that can be combined, manipulated in various ways, loose parts play encourages imagination and creation by making use of objects without a predetermined purpose. Playing with pinecones, planks of wood, feathers, strips of materials and cups: all these materials can be used for loose parts play. Research has shown loose parts play increases children’s problem-solving skills, participation, team work, socializing and creative thinking. The same is true for adults.

Give this a chance. Any reluctance you have to the idea of loose parts play is likely, at its root, due to a reluctance to appear silly, or childish. Put more bluntly: you don’t want to look like an ass. But this return to a state of unrestrained childish abandon is exactly what makes play so beneficial: it’s this freedom that fosters the results and productivity that we as adults value so highly. After all we are all just children with adult responsibilities.

Go fucking play! Don’t worry if Anne from finance is going to judge you.

“While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about.” — Angela Schwindt

As adults we tend to doubt if we are doing something right because we have been told time and again that we are doing something wrong. We have this constant need to have some perfect final outcome. Don’t get me wrong, working towards a goal is important, I’m not suggesting you give that up, but some unencumbered playtime, free from self-judgement, objectives and time can seriously increase your awareness and happiness levels, and can even increase your productivity, allowing you to reach those goals faster without the need to meticulously overthink each step along the way. There’s no right or wrong way to do this, just get up and do something fun and engaging. Play is an existential past-time: it’s not about the progress, but the process. Keep reading, you’ll see what I mean…

Play in the Workplace

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More and more companies are getting on board with promoting more play in the workplace. Whether it’s including a pool table in the break room, providing frisbees for employees to use outside when they need to recharge, encouraging creativity in everyday tasks, or scheduling fun, after-work outings, more and more businesses are understanding the importance of play in creating a solid work culture and happier, more engaged employees.

Not to oversimplify the situation, but a playful employee is a productive employee.

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.” — Carl Jung

The Science of Play

Play, which should be the most natural thing in the world for us to do, can seem distinctly unnatural for many. It’s something a lot of us struggle with: embracing this balance without feeling like we’re not being productive; that we’re wasting time. It took some time for me to get onboard with the practice, I was always busy being busy. But now, I really find that if I am playing or adding play in to my day (drawing, playing with a toy, throwing a ball, picking berries, even just laying out on the grass in the sun)-I feel more connected, I feel more in tune with my body, my mind and the world. And this sort of seemingly paradoxical relaxed focus makes me more productive. I think clearer, I see more and I am more available for what is happening in the moment. Think of it from a child’s perspective. They’re always in the moment, they don’t even know how to think about the future. So play adds that element of presentness that was lacking in my work for so long. You don’t have to take my anecdotal evidence as proof: there’s science to back up my claims.

As Einstein famously said, “Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.” Not surprisingly, research backs up Einstein’s belief, showing that adults who regularly play are increasingly innovative, productive, focused, emotionally balanced, considerably less stressed and more happy. And this happiness: that is the key.

Laughter and Play

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It’s cliche, but nevertheless true: laughter is the best medicine. The laughter that is so often a natural extension of play physically and emotionally strengthens your body. How? Laughter triggers the release of our bodies’ feel good hormones, endorphins, which can diminish pain and boost our immunity, and suppresses release of the stress hormone, cortisol-which, when in excess, can lead to a dizzying number of serious problems, including depression, chronic pain, even heart disease and cancer. The result? People who laugh more tend to laugh longest. So during this adult playtime you’re not just getting the benefits of being present and productive, but laughter being an important by product of play allows you to improve your health and well-being at the same time.

“We don’t laugh because we are happy, we are happy because we laugh” — Dr Madan Kataria

3 Ways to Put Play into Practice

Learning how to play again may take practice. You may feel antsy at first. You may have trouble disconnecting your mind from what you think you should be doing. Play is a little like learning to meditate in this regard: you should start small, and be patient with yourself.

1. Start Structured

While eventually your play may take on a more free-flowing form, if you’re struggling with the idea of play initially, try doing something with a purpose. Plan an outdoor scavenger hunt with your friends or coworkers. Book an outing at a local escape room. Go axe throwing. There is a purpose to this play, though not necessarily a tangible product from the end of it: just a general feeling of lightness and happiness.

Eventually, when you’ve become comfortable with making time for structured play, try some non-structured play, like blowing bubbles, flying a kite, build a lego tower, construct a card castle or explore the woods.

2. Continue In Small Order

10 minutes. Carve out just 10 minutes for play every day. I’ve spent more than 10 minutes in line for coffee, so really, there’s no excuse not to be able to set aside this amount of time to play something. Anything. 10 minutes of play will make you happier, more focussed and more creative.

Once that 10 minutes starts passing in what seems like mere seconds, then you can up your playtime. There is no ideal maximum playtime really: play as long as you’d like while not shirking any of the non-negotiable responsibilities in your life, like picking your kid up from daycare or meeting a project deadline. Just sprinkle a little play into your day and see how things change.

3. Do What You Love

This final point may seem obvious, but we spend so much of our lives doing things we don’t want to do that it’s easy to let this begrudging attitude spill over to play. Choose a type of play you think you’d actually like. If athletic competitions give you flashbacks rom track and field day when you were a kid, don’t set up a relay-race for you and your co-workers. Do something else. Paint. Play Jumbo Jenga. Blow up some water balloons and sabotage your partner or kids when they get home from work or school.

The point is this: do what brings you joy and do it often. This joy from play will manifest in every other part of your life, making you more positive, centred and ultimately, successful — whatever you do. Just try it once today, turn the part of your brain off that is telling you this is silly and go outside and play a little, just see what happens.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

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Cory Firth, FDP

Written by

I spent $100k rebuilding my mind, body, and inner-self through a series of uncommon experiences that completely transformed my life. This is what I’ve learned.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +752K people. Follow to join our community.

Cory Firth, FDP

Written by

I spent $100k rebuilding my mind, body, and inner-self through a series of uncommon experiences that completely transformed my life. This is what I’ve learned.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +752K people. Follow to join our community.

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