The Abundant Benefits of Play

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Play is one of the most lauded – yet undervalued – parts of our lives. In the work I do with artists and creative professionals, I help each person develop or revive a practice of regular play. I have seen these practices transform people’s relationships, increase their incomes, and improve their abilities to give their gifts to the world while staying healthy and grounded. Yet even though I continually encourage others to play more, I often find myself surprised by the power of play to restore my own calm, compassion, and creativity.

Play is an essential aspect of normal development for humans, as it is for many creatures. Think of frisky kittens, foxes, or dolphins. Yes, they play to practice and learn adult skills, but there is more to it than that. Play is a way of expanding curiosity and compassion, of improving imagination and problem solving, and of restoring ourselves for hard work. When we enjoy a pick-up soccer game or build a sandcastle with a young friend, we rediscover the joys of play – connection, invention, and fun.

Art Supplies, photo by Patricia MorrisonThat play can expand my senses of curiosity and compassion is key for me. As I focus on work, tasks, and needs, my view narrows, my vision is limited, and I can fall into judging others and being too certain of my own path. I can also turn this tendency inward – to self-criticism and general negativity. There is nothing like an aimless stroll under the stars or putting pen to a blank journal page to interrupt these negative tendencies and to reconnect with my inner curiosity, a part of me that asks rather than tells, wonders rather than knows better.

These attitudes of curiosity and compassion help me remember some key points from Alternatives To Violence. Namely, that people generally want to help if they are given a chance, and that I don’t know the story behind the grumpy store clerk or the distracted friend. I find that if I have played recently, I am much more likely to give people the benefit of the doubt, to smile and hold them in the Light, to pause long enough ask them questions, genuinely listen, and learn from their stories.

Another important benefit of play is the way it improves our imaginations and creative problem solving. Creativity and innovation come from being able to make connections between seemingly disparate ideas and pieces of knowledge. This ability allows us to solve problems and present new ideas to the world, which can only happen when the pre-frontal cortex region of the brain is quieted. This is the region that plans and helps us complete our to-do lists, etc. The pre-frontal cortex is quieted most effectively in meditation and in play. Quite literally, those who would show us that another world is possible – and how to get there – must have adequate time for meditation and play in order to gain the insights that our broken world desperately needs.

Rest and relaxation are perhaps the most obvious benefits of play, but their importance is nonetheless undervalued. Operating on too little sleep and too much work and simmering in the woes of our world not only wear us down, they also shorten our ability to engage in important work, damage our relationships, and literally limit our lifespans. Making time for play means longer, happier lives of contribution and meaning. These are lives lived in the true spirit of the testimony of simplicity.

I would like to share some specific advice about ways to bring more play into our lives. One important step is to realize that there are countless ways to play, including:

  • Unscheduled, unplanned downtime
  • Organized games
  • Creative expression
  • Open-minded and open-hearted exploration
  • Certain kinds of retreats
  • Approaching life with curiosity and attention
  • Listening to inner wisdom, one’s inner guide, the still small voice; having a spiritual practice
  • Forgoing “should” and expectations of productivity

Something else I have learned is that short bursts of play can offer great rewards. Like many people, I find it hard to set aside large swaths of time. I run two businesses and help run our farm. Still, it is amazing what five minutes of play can do. If I pick up my instrument, pen, sneakers, or whatever feels fun, and play for just five minutes, a sense of spaciousness opens up in me that lightens my whole day. Keeping it short also has the added bonus of countering inclinations toward perfectionism and the urge to always be productive. You can’t reach perfection – or even completion – in just five minutes!

Another great way to combat perfectionism and to promote playfulness is “creative cross-training.” If you are dedicated to a particular hobby or art form, try something else once in a while. Especially try activities at which you are a beginner. This is a great way to go back to kindergarten, where the stakes are lower. You can remember the fun of trying things out, not knowing what you are doing, and not caring whether you are doing it right. Explore, be messy, and laugh. It works. As a “word person,” one of my favorite forms of cross-training is taking photos of nature with my phone. It can turn around my attitude in an instant.

That’s another important piece of advice for adding more play to your life: get outside. Fresh air, open sky, birds, flowers, weeds climbing up through cracks in the sidewalk – the outdoors is a great place to reboot your sense of wonder. And being outside gives physical benefits, too – calmness, deeper breathing, and even lower blood pressure.

My last piece of advice: Look for opportunities that specifically promote playfulness. I co-facilitate retreats every year, and participants find them to be silly and profound and playful and powerful. They provide solo time, time for community building, time in nature, and time for rest. This is the kind of retreat I love, one that hits a major reset button, gives me perspective, and allows me to go home more loving, more joyful, and more ready to be of service in the world.

But don’t stop there! Don’t stop at bringing more play into your own life. Help make play more accessible for everyone! Like many of the historic practices of Friends, play is countercultural for adults. People think of it as decadent, privileged, lazy, and useless. But denying our natural need for play is a way to destroy our capacity to follow our leadings. So start in your own life, then find a play buddy, and report to each other weekly about the ways that you have played. Grow the circle to include your Quaker meeting or your neighborhood, and play together. Finally, help make play available to people who normally lack access. Support organizations like Playgrounds For Palestine (playgroundsforpalestine.com) and Barefoot Artists (barefootartists.org). Help Habitat For Humanity build playgrounds. Encourage fellow adults to play by celebrating when someone talks about playing. Support living wages and paid time off, so everyone gets the privilege of playtime in their lives.  ~~~

Patricia Morrison attends South Mountain Friends Meeting in Ashland, Oregon (NPYM). A folk singer/songwriter on hiatus from touring to help create a farm, she also works with working artists and creative professionals to help them find focus, funding, and fulfillment in their work with her business, InnerFireOuterLight.com.