I love paradox. The most important insights I’ve found came wrapped in paradox. For example, play is by definition doing something that has no practical purpose. Yet play provides essential, practical rewards.
Shigeru Miyamoto, inventor of Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong and The Legend of Zelda, told The New Yorker, “Anything that is impractical can be play. It’s doing something other than what is necessary to continue living as an animal.”
Yet, Miyamoto’s adult success as a game designer grew out of his impractical, playful, imaginative childhood. He developed the Wii Fit as a result of “gamifying” his own search for fitness and weight loss. Clearly, creative imaginative play has paid off for Miyamoto and for anyone who’s enjoyed his games.
The practical benefits of impractical play go beyond financial success and recognition. Play is the natural way to learn, to practice, to rehearse without penalties. Play expands the imagination. Play is essential for creativity.
The brain thrives on play. Play stimulates BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) that stimulates nerve growth. Play is the “work” of childhood. The bigger the brain relative to body mass, the more the young of that species need play to develop their brain.
Free Time Lost
Since 1955, children have steadily lost unstructured time for play, aka free time. Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire, authors of Wired to Create, suggest that in the effort to coordinate “valuable activities,” adults have unintentionally robbed children:
“…of not only the enjoyment of pure fun but also the opportunity for the healthy development of many key skills necessary for creativity. These important skills include impulse control, planning, organization, problem solving, literacy and language development, symbolism, comprehension of STEM concepts, mathematical ability, curiosity, divergent thinking (“what if” thinking), cognitive integration of diverse content, flexibility, emotional regulation, stress reduction, integration of cognition and emotions, empathy, respect, social negotiation, collaboration, and tolerance for others – a significant set of skills to allow to fall by the wayside.”
Children don’t need adults to figure out a curriculum to train all these skills. They just need time to play, time to invent their own worlds, imagine, dream up crazy ideas and be willing to appear foolish and “unproductive.”
Adults can reclaim the benefits of play. We can enlist children as our Sherpa guides. (You know, don’t you, that Sir Edmund Hillary, typically recognized as the first man to scale Everest, would never would have reached the summit without his Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay.)
Sometimes adults need to force ourselves to play. That’s hard to do because play requires surrendering our image of being responsible, productive, important and worthwhile. We have to surrender the “I’m so busy” lament that Brene Brown points out we wear as a badge of honor. It’s also hard because our busy-ness is addictive.
Adults need play. According research cited in Wired to Create, “Adults who are more playful report feeling less stressed, being better able to cope with stress, and having greater life satisfaction and other positive life outcomes.”
Play lets you use your brain more creatively. It also creates your brain. In his book Play, Stuart Brown cites research illustrating how play creates new neural connections. Play may be a key factor in keeping the aged-related cognitive losses to a minimum. Or as George Bernard Shaw put it, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.”
So quit screwing around and get busy with the important work of creative play.