Back Away from the Vacuum: Go Out and Find Your Playful Side

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So Let's Play! But What?

Figuring out what kind of play is good for the mind and soul can be a little tricky. Playing chess is very different from playing tennis, which is totally different from playing charades, which is nothing like playing in a garage band. And all of those activities are different from flying a kite or riding a skateboard, which in turn are different from playing poker or bridge. Some of the most enriching forms of play don't, on the surface, look much like "play" at all. Creative activities like painting pottery, beading a necklace, or doing embroidery can be playful, too. Whether or not something qualifies as "play" really depends on the individual. An activity that's pure fun for one person can be a source of annoyance or anxiety to another, points out Dr. Brown. "If you take an introvert who's into knitting and force her into a Frisbee game, she's going to be totally miserable."

Play, then, is a state of mind rather than a specific activity. To derive its full benefit you must enter it with no goal beyond the simple one of seeking pleasure in the experience. "When you focus on the end product -- to get in shape or to beat an opponent -- rather than pure enjoyment, you're turning play into just another form of work," says Dr. Schaefer. In other words, if you're playing tennis because it's fun and it lifts you out of your daily rut, then you're truly playing. But if you're "playing" tennis primarily to stay in shape, you're just working out -- and if you're playing mainly to improve your game, you're only practicing.

Ultimately, this is what makes playtime different from other forms of rest and relaxation. It feels great to sleep late; it can be emotionally nourishing to meet a friend for coffee and catch up on each other's news; it's a real pleasure to sink into a deep chair with a good book and a steaming cup of tea -- and you should make time for all of these delights. But they don't provide the same sense of exhilaration, the same whee! as playtime.

If your playground skills are rusty, try these tips for reconnecting with your inner child:

  • Remember what you loved playing as a kid and look for an adult equivalent: If you enjoyed class skits in grade school, take an acting class; if you couldn't get enough Scrabble, try your hand at Sudoku.
  • Mind your gaps: If you spend your day with other people, look for opportunities for solitary play, and vice versa, advises Tevis Trower, a corporate consultant for work-life balance based in New York City.
  • Make playdates: Block out time on the calendar for playtime, with others or alone. If it's on the to-do list, it won't feel like you're playing hooky.
  • Be silly: "Playing is more of a state of mind for my husband and me," says Susan Wilson, an executive trainer in Stevensville, Michigan. "We'll take off our skis and slide on our rears down a hill, for example, or one of us will start a how-many-peas-can-you-fit-in-your-mouth contest."
  • Just say yes: Robin Bienvenu, a computer programmer in Birmingham, Alabama, realized she'd been turning down invitations and putting fun last, behind tasks like dishes and laundry. "Since then I've said yes to skiing, camping, and bouncing in a moon bounce. I'm having so much fun!"
  • Join a group: Anna Gray Hart, a preschool teacher in Pearland, Texas, loves her monthly Bunko game. "Twelve of us roll dice, drink cocktails, and exchange stories. I get to reconnect with the party girl inside me."

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2010.


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