Love at play

It’s often considered a behaviour bound to childhood, but play has the power to make the world a better place.

Can you recall the in-the-moment magic of your playtime as a child? My sister and I would spend countless hours in the company of our toys. From cuddly teddies to fearsome dragons, LEGO pirate ships and improbably proportioned Bratz dolls.

Each afternoon and on weekends, our bare feet would turn brown as we frolicked in the backyard: strapping Barbies to our dog Boof as a wild (and perhaps unwilling) means of adventurous transport; having hushed gatherings amidst the glossy leaves of Dad’s Murraya hedge; our dolls enjoying a Tarzan-esque lifestyle  in the boughs of the mango tree, complete with ladders and platforms crafted from twigs and twine.

Talent shows, stick-sword battles, blind man’s buff, and toy sagas that rivalled the drama of Gilmore Girls. As the katydids and crickets began to sing, we’d stay and play into the settling of dusk, coming inside only to ease the grumbling of our tummies – bush tea and mud pies can only sustain for so long. Cheeks flushed, limbs grazed, giggling at our own genius, we occupied a wondrous world all our own, transcending both time and place.

I imagine your playtime was just as enchanting.

But perhaps now you tend to stick to the sidelines, watching with amusement as your own children careen from jungle safari to outer space with heady abandon. Maybe your heart twinges with yearning, a subtle thrum of longing for such unbridled freedom and joy.


With ever-burgeoning to-do lists and the busyness of the day-to-day, it is understandable that adults are often quick to undervalue or trivialise play as a behaviour bound to childhood.  But as professor Edward Norbeck noted in his anthropological study of human play, the impulse to carry out such behaviour is biologically inherited, and play is characteristic of the entire class of mammals. According to Norbeck, “Certain forms of play appear to be so deeply rooted as mammalian behaviour that they cross species, genera, families, and orders.”

It seems that play is in our DNA, and there is plenty of research that reinforces the importance of children’s play for physical, cognitive, and emotional development. But what about beyond the realm of childhood?


Research shows that students enjoy more positive school experiences when they engage in imaginative and physical play. However, according to Dr Hilary Conklin, associate professor of social studies at DePaul University, one of the causalities of test-dominated schooling and education reform is the erosion of creativity and play for youth transitioning into adulthood. “Researchers have documented a rise in mental health problems – such as anxiety and depression – among young people, that has paralleled a decline in opportunities to play,” says Conklin. Combined with the pervasive presence of digital media, the space for free, unstructured play is shrinking.

“Adolescents… not to mention adults, as shown through Google’s efforts, need time to play,” says Conklin. She’s referring to the behemoth tech company’s use of ‘play areas’ in its Manhattan headquarters, including a LEGO station, walls to scribble on, and even secret rooms crouched behind moving bookcases. Along with other giants like Facebook and Apple, Google is tapping into our apparently innate need for play – and challenging our ‘grown-up’ notion that play is unproductive.


Clinical researcher and founder of the National Institute for Play in California, Dr Stuart Brown has dedicated decades to studying the power of play, and likens it to sleep as a fundamental survival drive. “It is a sustaining, important part of being human,” says Brown. He describes play as a “state of being” that is purposeless and pleasurable, which serves as a catalyst to improve our productivity, resilience and happiness. This has particular repercussions for adults.

“Our overall long period of childhood dependency, which is dominated by the need for play, does not end with our reaching adulthood,” says Brown. “Our adult biology remains unique among all creatures, and our capacity for flexibility, novelty and exploration persists.”

He goes on to argue that if we suppress our need to play, or let such behaviour fall by the wayside as we age, the consequences can be dire. “The play-less adult becomes stereotyped, and generally is quicker to react to stress with violence or depression than the adult whose play life persists.” Ah. Any wonder that at the tender age of 15, I blubbered inconsolably when my sister, three years my junior, put down our dolls for the final time, and told me she didn’t want us to play anymore.


I like to believe that despite this dampener, I retained my zeal for playfulness, whether it’s wearing a wacky Christmas-themed shirt to the office every day in December (yes, I’m that gal), or holding entire conversations with my spaniel, Jedi. This type of playful behaviour is something Dr Brown says is crucial in an age when we are constantly tuned in and switched on. “In a world of major continuous change, playful humans who can roll with the punches and innovate through their play-inspired imaginations will better survive. Our playful natures have arrived at this place through the trial and error of millions of years of evolution, and we need to honour our design to play.”

While playtime for parents, and adults in general, serves to reduce stress and enhance our wellbeing, Dr Brown suggests that one of the greatest arguments for the importance of play is how strongly we identify ourselves through this behaviour. How we play is “as unique to an individual as a fingerprint,” he says. “Just look at the eloquent memories of 9/11 victims The New York Times published. The headlines – the summation of a life – were lines like ‘A Spitball Shooting Executive’, a ‘Lover of Laughter’. Play is who we are.”


So how can we eschew seriousness and foster more playfulness in our lives? Play follow the leader, and let little ones be your guide. Brown stresses the importance of surrounding yourself with playful people, and that includes your loved ones. Playing alongside a child helps you experience the magic and wonder from their perspective and provides serious benefits for both of you. Brush up on your mud-pie-making skills; dust off those board games lying dormant on the shelves; jump, roll, tickle and dance; build rustic cities amongst shrubs and trees; and camp under the billowing folds of your linen cupboard’s contents. If you’re stuck for inspiration, Brown suggests a stroll down memory lane: “If adults can begin to reminisce about their happiest and most memorable moments, they can capture the emotion and visual memories… and begin to connect again to what truly excites them in life.”

When I cast my mind back to our doll houses, raucous family  games of Scrabble, and steamy bike rides to the wetlands to spot side-scuttling crabs amongst the mangroves, I feel a swell of nostalgic joy; an overwhelming sense of possibility, wonder,  and magic. That is what I want for myself… and to pass down. After all, as Dr Brown says, “Play is the purest expression of love. When enough people raise play to the status it deserves in our lives, we will find the world a better place.”

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