What We’re Reading: The Importance of Play

This week, I’ve been learning about play. It all started when I read a book called, well, Play. Or rather, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. Researcher and psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Brown provides a fascinating insight into why play is an essential element of life for all animals. Check out his TED Talk for an entertaining preview of the book (don’t miss the story of the polar bear and the huskies a couple of minutes in—it’s remarkable):

It turns out that making time for play is important not just for animals in the wild but also humans—adults as well as kids. In fact, it’s one of the most important things we can do for our health and happiness. As Brown says:

We, as homo sapiens, are fundamentally equipped for and need to play actively throughout our lifespan by nature’s design. Our adult biology remains unique among all creatures, and our capacity for flexibility, novelty and exploration persists. If we suppress this natural design, the consequences are dire. The play-less adult becomes stereotyped, inflexible, humorless, lives without irony, loses the capacity for optimism, and generally is quicker to react to stress with violence or depression than the adult whose play life persists.

In a world of continuous change, playful humans who can roll with the punches and innovate through their play-inspired imaginations survive better. Our playful natures have arrived at this place through the trial and error of millions of years of evolution, and we need to honor our design to play.

Sounds great, but when your day is packed with obligations, how do you find that playful side of yourself? And how do you play?

As Dr. Stuart Brown says, understanding our “play profile” is essential to finding those creative activities we might not think of as play at first blush:

If adults can begin to reminisce about their happiest and most memorable moments, they can capture the emotion and visual memories of those moments and begin to connect again to what truly excites them in life. Generally, a person’s purest emotional profile—temperament, talents, passions—is reflected in positive play experiences from childhood.

This is definitely true for me. At its core, the reason I read 200 books a year is because I love it. It’s what I did as a kid, and it’s what I do now. It is, hands down, my number one way to play. As an introvert, I find it also works well for me as a hobby, and it gives me the alone time I need to recharge.

It turns out this is not the norm with many of the traditional activities we associate with play. When Trent Hamm, for example, wrote a list of 102 things to do that don’t cost any money, one reader wrote in:

It looks like a lot of free things are boring and/or require you to actually have friends. Aren’t there any fun things I can do by myself?

For all the introverts out there, Trent took up the call. The Frugal Introvert: 50 Ways to Have Fun By Yourself on the Cheap is a treasure trove of potential play activities that will also give you alone time. Here’s one I bet you haven’t heard of before:

Do a “Wikipedia walk”

I often burn a good hour doing a “Wikipedia walk” as I investigate a particular topic and find interesting connections to other areas of personal interest. All you have to do is think of a very broad topic you’re interested in—say, philosophy—and read through that entry, following any and all links that are of interest. What I usually do is open up a bunch of new browser tabs from links on that first entry, read each tab, opening new ones, until I’ve had my fill. It’s a great way to learn the details of any topic, from knitting to the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Need more ideas? This Quora post has some great ones, replete with suggestions about what activities work with which Myers-Briggs’ personality type. And, lest we forget BuzzFeed’s 21 Things Introverts Love, which has a few more gems. If you’re an introvert, you’ll nod your head the whole way through.

Ultimately, though, you have to figure out the way to play that is truly uniquely you. Here’s some motivation to do it:

The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can. —Neil Gaiman

So go on, get out of here. Play as only you can play.