Over the course of each ho-hum day, a tragedy happens that we aren’t even aware of: We give up play.
It’s true, isn’t it? If an activity seems remotely nonproductive, we dismiss it for something that seems like a more responsible use of our time. Think you’re not guilty? When was the last time you asked your spouse to get takeout so you could perch over your pottery wheel for a few more hours? Remember when you almost ditched your Friday appointments to go fishing? And what about that time you chickened out of taking rock climbing classes because you didn’t want to fall on your face and look foolish?
If we add up all the urges to play we dismiss every week, we might be a little disappointed in the conventional lives we’ve designed for ourselves.
Play isn’t just important—it’s necessary. Want to stand out at work? Need a push to tackle that dream? Wondering how to curtail your current burn out? Then loosen the necktie, kick off the heels; it’s time to get serious about play.
Play and Creativity
Play and creativity go hand in hand. Some of the world’s most creative people have connected those dots. They realize that a childlike streak of wonder and an insatiable curiosity, bring color and ingenuity to their lives and their work.
Famed painter Henri Matisse knew this, which is why he once proclaimed:
“Creative people are curious, flexible, persistent, and independent with a tremendous spirit of adventure and a love of play.”
Educators know that recess represents more than a time for kids to unleash their energy; recess actively promotes learning. Research shows that play opens up new neural connections in the brain, which can lead to greater creativity and learning. Today, students can transition from the school playground into a workplace that equally values the importance of play. More than ever before, creativity—not intellect—stands out as the coveted power skill in nearly every profession. Experts claim that in addition to a creativity boost, play injected into a workday can lower stress levels and improve concentration, motivation, and optimism. It’s true: All work and no play can actually work against larger goals of productivity. This is why companies like Google, Contently, and Disney fold opportunities for play into their culture.
10 Ways to More Play
Convinced you need more play in your life? Here are 10 ways to help you grab your piece of the fun.
1. Keep a “play stash”
If you need permission to play, consider this your green light. Keep a drawer at work or a closet at home packed with fun things and, when possible, wrangle a few other people into the mix. When you feel yourself creatively blocked or frustrated with a task, take a ten-minute play break.
There are all kinds of quick and easy play options: coloring books, Play-Doh, a Slinky, Silly Putty, checkers, a hula hoop, Nerf guns, a jump rope, bubbles, jigsaw puzzles, a Rubik’s cube, Twister, Etch A Sketch, and Legos. My favorite: flying a kite.
2. Do the opposite of normal
Admit it: You don’t know what you don’t know. That’s what I realized the first time I went canoeing with friends. The experience opened a door inside of me that I never knew existed. I felt like a kid again, like Huck Finn on the Mississippi. I loved the calm of the river and the lull of the boat on the water.
Do something completely outside of your familiar paths; it can open up fresh brain space and give you a head start on the week ahead.
3. Get dirty, break rules
Adult life requires a certain degree of order and rule-following, or chaos ensues (or so we believe). Chuck those strings once in a while, and invite the kid in you to the party. Finger paint, try your hand at pottery, create a chalk masterpiece on the sidewalk, hike to a waterhole and splash around, or seek out a color or mud run. How many times have you ducked out of the fun because you didn’t want to get dirty—when getting dirty is exactly what your play-starved heart was craving?
Make a pact with yourself: The next time it rains, go dance, jump in puddles, or have stick races. The next time it snows, pull your neighbors out of their caves (taunt them, if necessary) and have the Super Bowl of snowball fights. Getting excited now, aren’t you?
4. Take a few risks
Kids take risks because, unlike adults, their main goal is to out-fun the fun they had yesterday; potential danger rarely enters their minds. When we were kids, my brothers used to pretend they were motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel. With kitchen towels safety pinned around their necks and oversized motorcycle helmets, my brothers sped up plywood ramps and sailed over a row of logs. Each time they landed without wiping out (about 50 percent of the time), they increased the log count, and the crowd cheered. Bloodied elbows and bent wheels meant nothing because they were lost in play. Word spread of their near-death stunts, and soon they were Pinetop Lane’s fearless champs and had the swagger to go with it. Risk gave them permission to keep dreaming and to push limits. Today they are both creative, successful entrepreneurs.
You don’t have to be reckless with the risks you take, but introducing a little heart-skipping risk into your play can inspire new confidence. Take little risks, and build from there. Try your hand at rock climbing, surfing, scuba diving, or water skiing. Get a mountain bike, and venture through the wooded trails of your town. Rent a kayak, boat, or a Jet Ski for the day. There’s an unexplored world that will welcome you with open arms, if you’re willing to go find it.
5. Recycle heartache
Tough times can either sink your creativity or ignite it. Play is a vehicle that can be used to usher in healing creativity. Artists and musicians have mastered this; they’ve learned to turn their heartache into something beautiful. From symphonies and songs to films and literature, some of the world’s greatest masterpieces are laced in heartache.
Going through a tough season? Pick up a paintbrush, a pen, a guitar, some clay, or even take up a new sport. You don’t have to feel like playing to get started. You’ll be surprised what creative play will stir in your spirit and the healing it can generate.
6. Mix work and play
Remember your mom’s voice at dusk calling you home and your heart sinking because you wanted to play forever? What if we felt that way about work? It’s possible. Play lets loose the kind of freedom that makes you beg the clock, the sun, and the earth to stand still so you can just . . . keep . . . playing. When we fold play into our work lives consistently, the line between work and play begins to blur.
Steve Jobs said of creative people:
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”
7. Don’t overthink it
Play doesn’t have to be an orchestrated task with results attached to it. Sometimes play is as easy as grabbing a Frisbee or bocce ball at lunchtime. Other times, finding time for serious play will take a little planning—but overthinking it will obliterate the fun.
Start small. Practice folding an hour of fun into your workweek, and build up the play ratio from there. You may have to try a few new activities before you find the ones that truly make your heart sing.
8. Meet Pinterest
If you haven’t lost at least 10 hours of precious, irretrievable life scrolling through and “pinning” ideas on the social network, Pinterest, then it’s officially time to do so. When it comes to finding new and exciting ideas for adding more play to your day, Pinterest is a great place to start. Simply type in “creative games,” “crafts,” “kid games,” or “outdoor adventures.” Start your own Let’s Play or Bucket List board, and follow others’ boards for inspiration. You’ll find everything from balloon tennis, to treasure hunts, to yard Yahtzee, and a zillion other great ideas.
9. Send in the clowns
To bring more play into your life, break away from your safety net and surround yourself with playful people. Next time a colleague talks about his sailing adventures, ask if you can tag along. Or take the lead: rally the risk takers and go camping. Start looking for and initiating fun, and I guarantee you’ll find it.
And remember what playwright George Bernard Shaw said:
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
10. Observe the wee ones
Forgotten how to play altogether? (Hey, it’s possible!) The world is teeming with workaholics, tech addicts, and rivers of grumpy adults who have fun-amnesia. No worries—just look around. Watch the children play. Observe their unfettered connections, their erratic pursuit of a puppy, and the giggles they carry on the tips of their tongues. There’s a reason Jesus said the kingdom of God belonged to the childlike in spirit. Children get it. They remember what we’ve forgotten: the power of awe, fearlessness, and surprise. Wonder clears space in our hearts for God to speak and for faith to grow, which is an even bigger reason to bring your heart back to the playground.
Toni Birdsong is an author, a blogger, and owner of Birdsong Creative, a branding and web agency outside of Nashville, Tennessee. She’s been riding the creative white waters professionally for more than 25 years, including The Walt Disney Company, where she was an Imagineer.