Playtime For Adults

12 Mar 2024

Why adults need to make time for playtime

New studies suggest that play may be as essential to our health as sleep. Here’s why—and how you can incorporate it into your grown-up life.

On the rare occasion that a snowstorm blankets Washington, D.C., the city is transformed: The National Mall becomes a moonscape, the monuments turn alien, and the U.S. Capitol morphs into a castle on a cloud. When I awoke to this captivating scene one December morning, I immediately put on my warmest clothes and dashed outside. I wanted to build a snowman, but no matter how gently I rolled my snowball in the glistening fluff, it refused to grow. Defeated, I collapsed onto the powder with my arms and legs splayed. Since I was already halfway to a snow angel, I windshield-wipered my limbs to finish the job.

Then I noticed I had an audience—a prim-looking couple with Starbucks cups in their gloved hands. Disapproval wafted off them like steam from their lattes. My face flushed with shame as I stammered an answer to their unspoken question: Don’t you have anything better to do?

A middle-age woman playing by herself in the snow is an undeniably odd sight, but maybe it shouldn’t be. New research suggests that modern adults are suffering from a surfeit of somberness. We’ve suppressed our natural play instinct, and that’s causing all kinds of problems—for ourselves, our children, and our planet.

“The opposite of play isn’t work; it’s depression,” says psychiatrist and play researcher Stuart Brown. “The adult-play deficit is becoming a public health crisis.” Play may look frivolous, but recent studies indicate that for mammals and perhaps all vertebrates, it may be as essential as the need for sleep. Just last summer, scientists found that the play drive originates in the brain stem—in evolutionary terms, one of the oldest parts of our nervous system. You can take out a rat’s entire cerebral cortex, and it will still want to play. Playfulness helps some young animals learn to master their bodies and their environments—and once they do, most stop playing as adults. However, there are a handful that never stop—a group that includes wolves, crows, dolphins, monkeys, humans, and other primates—and biologists are only beginning to figure out why.

One possibility is that adult play can lead to useful discoveries, a theory supported by a study on Bali’s long-tailed macaques. For her doctoral thesis at the University of Lethbridge, animal researcher Camilla Cenni left two types of puzzle boxes for the monkeys to solve. To get to the food inside, they had to either drop a rock into the container or use it to hit the box. She found that the macaques that previously had been observed dropping rocks for fun were more likely to solve the rock-dropping puzzle, while those that had discovered the joy of clacking rocks together came up with the answer to the percussive puzzle.

This finding also suggests that somewhere, deep in our evolutionary history, a playful proto-human came up with the concept of stone tools. Even today, the urge to play underlies most of humanity’s greatest inventions, artworks, and scientific breakthroughs, Brown says. “When I interviewed Nobel laureates, I was struck by how most of them didn’t separate work and play. Their labs were their playgrounds,” he says.

While object play occasionally results in direct applications, it has a more general benefit as well, says animal behaviorist Marc Bekoff. “Most forms of play are about preparing for the unexpected by expanding your behavioral repertoire.” When animals play by themselves—such as goats jumping around and intentionally landing awkwardly—they learn two lessons: how to recover from missteps and, more generally, how to remain calm when things go sideways. “Play gives you the opportunity to deal with uncertainty and surprise in a safe environment,” Bekoff says. This explains why animals that occupy predictable niches don’t play much as adults, while creatures that must innovate to survive do.

Octopuses are one good example of the latter. Soft-bodied and living among sharp-toothed sharks, they rely on creativity and improvisation to survive. As a solitary species, they are outliers. Most playful adult animals live in cooperative social groups. This observation has led biologists to discover what is perhaps the most important function of adult play: building and maintaining relationships.

Before wolves are accepted into a pack, they have to demonstrate that they know how to play. This is no mean feat. To keep roughhousing from turning into a real fight, both animals must keep running tabs on their playmate’s emotional state. Over time, the cavorting helps wolves learn what specific individuals enjoy and what they don’t. “A central feature of social play is self-handicapping,” Bekoff says. “While play fighting, you’ll see stronger animals rolling onto their backs and exposing their bellies, giving the weaker animals an opportunity to win.” Social play is always cooperative; the goal is not to win but to keep the game going. If you don’t want your playmate to quit, you have to take turns and play fair. As a result, social play reinforces the egalitarian aspects of wolf pack life.

Bonobos are some of the most egalitarian animals, and some of the most playful. This is no coincidence, says Elisabetta Palagi, a primate researcher at Pisa University. To roughhouse effectively requires a certain amount of vulnerability, so a successful play session strengthens bonobo relationships by building affection and trust. Female bonobos play much more than males, and this behavior is crucial to the maintenance of their matriarchal social structure, Palagi says. Attempts at dominance by lone males are immediately quashed by the collective force of the bonobo sisterhood. The power of play is also evident in bonobos’ inclusiveness and adaptability, she says. “They are xenophilic, which means they are accepting of new situations and new individuals, maybe because they practice through play,” Palagi says.

Adult play promotes inclusivity, cooperation, creativity, adaptivity, and egalitarianism—all qualities that we humans could use more of, says Jeff Harry, a play consultant. Unfortunately, social norms restrain our urge to let loose. “Being a playful adult is really stigmatized in our society,” he says. “You don’t want to feel irresponsible. You don’t want people to think that you’re childish.”

It hasn’t always been this way, says Peter Gray, a play researcher at Boston University. When Gray reviewed descriptions of the last remaining hunter-gatherer tribes, he noticed that they were often described as “good-humored,” “always laughing,” and “joyful.” “What we would call work—hunting and gathering—was fun,” he says. “It was interesting, skilled, varied work.” Not one of these hunter-gatherer tribes had a word for “toil”or “drudgery,” he adds.

“It sounds like I’m romanticizing, but this makes evolutionary sense,” Gray says. “Generally speaking, we like to do the things that are necessary for our survival. We like to eat. We like to drink water. We like to take care of cute little children.” Humans took one giant step away from fun when we started planting crops, he says. Plowing fields and milling flour are strenuous, repetitive, and boring. Then we invented factories and lost sight of play entirely.

We may be able to reverse this trajectory, says Harry. As we fully transition to a knowledge-based economy, work and play are beginning to merge again. Some of today’s most successful companies, such as Google and Apple, were started by people tinkering in their garages. Organizations like these understand the value of encouraging adults to play. In many cases, people aren’t needed for routine, boring tasks anymore. “You need people who can invent new things, who can think of new ways of doing things,” Harry says.

In the face of grave threats such as war and climate change, it’s tempting to spiral into seriousness. But that’s exactly the opposite of what we need to do. “Play is all about looking at a tough world with creativity and optimism. It gives us the ability to cooperate and get along with people who differ from us,” Brown says. He goes so far as to declare that “adult play is necessary for our survival as a species.”

The next time I’m caught playing, I know exactly what I’ll say: “I am not wasting time, or acting immature. I’m goofing off for the benefit of all humanity. You’re welcome.”


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