If you google “the importance of play”, you will likely read that play allows kids to develop: to be creative, use their imagination, and build skills. You may also read that adults should “connect with their inner child” to do the same. But what even is “play”? A quick google search gives me this definition: “engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.”

I think of myself as a playful person, I inject play into my work and my recreational activities. But I have this fear that I have forgotten how to “play”, like the verb- I definitely don’t play like I used to as a kid. Or maybe the fear is that I don’t take time to play because I have a hard time prioritizing activities that aren’t for a practical purpose in my busy adult life. I have “hobbies” but I have a tendency to turn them into projects and then they can seem like “work”. I have a lot of interests that I enjoy learning and thinking about, but learning seems like a purpose. So what counts as play? We say that people “play” an instrument, sport, or games but to me those also have a purpose: like learning, improving a skill, or winning.

This has been on my mind since last weekend when I attended an event called Make Play Matter: Lecture on levity in Life by SantaErik Riese at the Pinwheel Arts and Movement Studio. Erik introduced us to the Ludic Rheology Center, an idea that combines play and flow. This connection with flow lit up a little lightbulb in my head. When I do my projects for fun, I do them because they are things I want to do, I get into the zone with them. I like to think about stuff and make stuff. I joke with colleagues that I enjoy going to recreational meetings and talks, and this was exactly that. When you think about it, what could be better than a recreational talk about play?

The presentation was a delightful meander through a thought process around the concepts of play and flow. Some results of the thought process were shared, including a practical tool called The Art Pod Hexagon, a simple yet surprisingly versatile structure to shape your thoughts on paper. Then Erik gave three examples of its use: 1) generation of the six foundational values for the Ludic Rheology Center; 2) development of this event; and 3) a way to live one’s personal values and get chores done.

Peppered throughout the talk were snippets of inspiration Erik pulled from daily life- from conversations, friends, podcasts, books. It was like being allowed into someone else’s head, into their thought process- an invitation to join the thinking of these thoughts. This was particularly fun when one of those snippets was about linguistics and the ability to use words to transmit a thought from one person to another. As Erik said it aloud, I thought the idea too!

This talk was was like a roller coaster for the mind. I was captivated, enthralled, delighted. I was in the zone: thinking, learning, and connecting. It was FUN. Upon reflection it’s clear that for me, this is play. I haven’t forgotten how to play at all, my play has just evolved. But I’m still struggling with the element of purpose: the talk was fun because it made me think and because I learned. That’s why I went, but isn’t that a purpose?

The talk inspired me to try and find out more about what play looks like for adults and how it might be different from play of kids. I found a piece from the Washington Post called Why it’s good for grown-ups to go play that discusses just this question, and identifies four types of play in adults: fooling around outwardly, being light-hearted, playing with thoughts and ideas, and being whimsically interested in weird things. It goes on to suggest that to find your type, think about how you played as a kid.

My play-type is likely a combination of thoughts/ideas and whimsy, with a dash of outwardly fooling around. As a kid, I liked make-believe with world-building. I loved pretending that I was in a different situation and then solving problems that someone in that situation would have, usually by making new and weird things out of existing things. I still enjoy envisioning different situations and problem solving, only now I either call it daydreaming or planning. When I combine interesting thoughts from all over, I now call it synthesizing. As a kid I liked going to nature centers and discovering creatures; now I label that learning. Somehow all of these activities have become different (and non-play) things in my mental framework.

I suspect I didn’t so much forget how to play as re-named all the things I might have called “play” in the past. This talk inspired me to reconsider what these things are, what I call them now, and why it changed. That same WashPo piece has a quote from Stuart Brown, psychiatrist and founder of the International Play Center in California, that presented a definition I like much better than the first: “‘What all play has in common,’ Brown says, ‘is that it offers a sense of engagement and pleasure, takes the player out of a sense of time and place, and the experience of doing it is more important than the outcome’” (Wallace 2017). This definition does away with the purposelessness that was giving me heartburn and makes clear that in play, the key is that you do it for the process and not the outcome.

As an adult I’ve shifted to a focus on outcomes. As a research professional I’ve learned to value efficiency over lots of other things: I aim to optimize how I get to the goal. When I use this framework to think about my recreational projects, that’s when they feel like “work” or to-do list tasks that need to be done. This awareness gives me a way to reclaim my play, restoring the name of “play” to these activities I enjoy and intentionally choosing to do them as play.

One way I’ve been able to maintain enjoyment of a recreational project (sometimes) is to set the goal or intention to include valuing the process- I will plan a project that allows me to have an experience I find enjoyable. Writing this essay, for example. The output, a finished essay, is great but I set this goal as a sort of excuse to enjoy the process of exploring and refining the idea of play, connecting this idea to other things I am encountering in my life, connecting with folks who inspired me and who might be further inspired by my writing, and practice my writing skills.

In the talk, Erik called out the value of play beyond dollars on balance sheets. This awareness and acknowledgement that the process should be valued in its own right allows me to see that if I value the process first (over efficiency! This is hard for me), my recreational projects can remain play and not turn into work, and they can remain enjoyable. I think this is the key to capturing the well-being benefits of play, like stress reduction. Another benefit (not the primary goal!) is that this will likely produce better outputs, because I will have spent the time I wanted to do the project. And because I enjoy it and I am intrinsically motivated to work on the thing, I will spend more time on it! It’s a virtuous cycle, a positive feedback loop.

This process orientation also lends itself well to community work. I am very interested in structures: how they make certain things easy or challenging, and how they allow for certain kinds of solutions and not others (I first learned this from the book The Design of Everyday Things, which introduced me to the idea of constraints and affordances). A structure that values process and centers people and relationships allows for outcomes that are not possible with a structure that only values outcomes.

One of the six values of the Ludic Rheology Center is consensus decision making. This process can be frustrating if you come from an outcome-focused perspective because it will look messy and time consuming (this has been my view in the past; inefficiency!). If you value connection and relationships though, investing in the process of making decisions by consensus creates a return of all this other value, like bonding a group together, creating shared ownership over decisions which could lead to easier implementation of a policy, incorporating diverse viewpoints, inviting a broader pool of ideas to choose from, providing a sense of agency and respect for individuals participating in the process, and probably leading to a better outcome.

In the introduction to the book Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown introduces the idea of harm reduction, immediately expanding on it: “…I have come to believe that facts, guilt, and shame are limited motivations for creating change, even though those are the primary forces we use in our organizing work. I suspect that to really transform our society, we will need to make justice one of the most pleasurable experiences we can have” (brown, 33). I find it inspiring and hopeful to think about the idea that movement-building should be joyful and that it can create a place where people can play, instead of shaming people. Maybe fun and joy can help those of us who tend to focus on the inefficiency (this is me) transform our perspective to appreciate the process. Or at the very least, maybe it will motivate us to participate despite what we see as annoying inefficiencies. Because it’s so fun!

Just like there are individual well-being benefits of individual play, there are likely community well-being benefits- another non-monetary value generated. That WashPo piece considers that while child play allows kids to develop skills and learn, adult play could have evolved as a way for people to connect and keep the peace in communities. Making movements fun, enjoyable, and pleasurable will naturally attract more of the community, and the focus on process will connect people to one another and motivate them to stay involved. So how do we do it?

Sources brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. AK Press, 2017.

Wallace, Jennifer. “Why it’s good to go play.” Washington Post, 20 May 2017.