Why it's good - for health, prosperity & a new politics - for grown-ups to play

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A useful summary piece from Washington Post, doing the latest research round-up on the benefits of adult play. An excerpt:

Play is easy to recognize in children and animals — like, say, an impromptu game of tag or chase — but what does it look like in adults? How we play is “as unique to an individual as a fingerprint” and could mean collecting stamps, tossing a football, reading a book or climbing Mount Everest, says psychiatrist Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play in Carmel Valley, Calif.

“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.”

Although some people may appear more playful than others, researchers say that we are all wired by evolution to play. Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College, says, “Play primarily evolved to teach children all kinds of skills, and its extension into adulthood may have helped to build cooperation and sharing among hunter-gathers beyond the level that would naturally exist in a dominance-seeking species.”

In other words, for our earliest ancestors, play wasn’t just about adding fun to their lives, it may have been a way of keeping the peace, which was critical for survival.

There’s a reason that adult play exists in modern society, says Lynn Barnett, a professor of recreation, sports and tourism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. One theory is that we play because it’s therapeutic — and there’s research to back that up, she says. “At work, play has been found to speed up learning, enhance productivity and increase job satisfaction; and at home, playing together, like going to a movie or a concert, can enhance bonding and communication.”

Playful adults have the ability to transform everyday situations, even stressful ones, into something entertaining, Barnett says. She co-authored a study that found highly playful young adults — those who rated themselves high on personality characteristics such as being spontaneous or energetic, or open to “clowning around” — reported less stress in their lives and possessed better coping skills. Perhaps they have these attributes because they are better able to keep stress in perspective, Barnett theorizes.

“Highly playful adults feel the same stressors as anyone else, but they appear to experience and react to them differently, allowing stressors to roll off more easily than those who are less playful,” she says.

The article cites a research paper from Rene Proyer which identifies four types of playful adults: 

  • those who outwardly enjoy fooling around with friends, colleagues, relatives and acquaintances;
  • those who are generally lighthearted and not preoccupied by the future consequences of their behaviour;
  • those who play with thoughts and ideas
  • those who are whimsical, exhibiting interest in strange and unusual things and are amused by small, everyday observations.

Our interest in play at A/UK is in where this lightness-of-being could drive a more enthusiastic citizenship. What is the best mood-state that could generate invention and enterprise, for social and civic ends? Could a new politics profit from playfulness's power - in the way that it widens the frame of what's regarded as valuable or significant in everyday life?