Pursue What Matters
Episode 9: The Power of Play
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Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
I remember being a kid and playing. Or what about being a young mom or young dad and setting up play dates for kiddos? Can you remember a time you set aside for you to play? My guess is you probably can. That makes me sad. And you’re also probably thinking play Who has time for that? And more importantly, why would I make time for that? Well, it’s just as important for you to play now as it was when you were a little kid, and I will explain to you why in today’s episode. So let’s jump in.
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:35
Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Welcome to the Pursue What Matters podcast where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work. Today, we’re going to talk about the power of play and why it’s something we are hardwired for what happens when we don’t have enough play in our lives, how it benefits us and what to do to get more play time in your life. Summer is the perfect time to make a serious commitment to play. So if you’re not convinced yet, listen on, and I will make a believer out of you. So what do you think about when you think of play? Do you think of fun childhood memories, playgrounds, kids? Well, I’m here to tell you that play is not just for kids, we all need play to thrive. So today, I want to talk to you about first what play is, yeah, I’m gonna define it. Second, some of the amazing benefits of play, and why it is so essential to living a balanced life. And three, what you can do to add more play into your life so that you can pursue what matters because this is the thing. If you don’t have play in your life, you will be less successful. It’s actually a proven fact. So let’s learn why.
Dr. Melissa Smith 2:05
So first of all, what is play? So Stuart Brown is a physician and a leading researcher on play. He’s also I think he’s like the founder of the National Institute of play, which is pretty cool. Sounds like a fun job, right? He’s written a really great book titled what else play, and I’ll link to it in the show notes. So you can check it out. It is a it is a great read. It’s a fun read to. Anyway, in the book, he said that he really resisted defining play, because he just felt like that was wrong somehow. But eventually, he was pushed by other academics to define play. And of course, when it comes to research, you can’t really research something if you can’t define it, because that is the name of the game. So it became a practical issue for him if you wanted to continue, continue studying this topic. So here are the characteristics that he came up with that define play. So first of all, it’s apparently purposeless. So play is done for its own sake. And no, it seems purposeless. It definitely has many benefits, plays voluntary, so it’s not obligatory or required. And that’s really important. Play has an inherent attraction. It’s fun, it makes you feel good. It provides psychological arousal, and is a perfect cure for boredom. Play offers freedom from time, you lose a sense of time when plane, there’s a diminished consciousness of self, we lose our filtering self boy. And we can all use more of that. We focus less on image, manage management, what others are thinking of us, and the fact that we are thinking at all, we are better able to live in the moment, and you can fully be in the moment. So play is very mindful and present focused. Play also has improvisational potential. So when we are playing, we have an opportunity to step out of rigid ways of doing things, you’re more able to mix things up, serendipity can enter. And this can lead to new behaviors, insights, thoughts and responses, which is fun. With play, there is a continuation desire, so we want to keep playing because it’s pleasurable, it’s enjoyable, we want to keep doing it.
Dr. Melissa Smith 4:28
So those are some of the characteristics those are the characteristics that Dr. Brown identified about play. So think about some of your memories from childhood Did you play Do you remember how you played so I have a lot of memories of playing growing up. I mean, I remember in the summer, leaving the house first thing in the morning and being gone all day, especially you know in the summer, months being gone all day often, like coming home for lunch, coming home for dinner. But then being gone. being outside all day, I lived in a neighborhood where there were lots of kids, lots of kids my age. So we were always jumping on trampolines or we were playing games of kickball. We did lots of night games as I got older, which was a lot of fun. We also at the end of the row of houses, we had some woods and we, we would play elaborate games in the woods. And that was the time of Star Wars and all the Ewoks. And that was we kind of it felt like the Ewok. So we did all these elaborate games in the woods, and we had teams and we have the good guys and the bad guys. We also had several canals and irrigation systems. And so we would have boat races in the canals, we would ride tubes down the canals, we’d swim in the canals, we rode our bikes a lot. I mean, when I think of my childhood, like I was always outside, played, and I’m sure I wasn’t always outside playing, but most of the time I was.
Dr. Melissa Smith 6:13
So if you’ve spent any amount of time watching kids play, you can definitely see that there is purpose in play. So my undergraduate degree is in human development. So I actually spent a lot of time watching preschool kids play as part of my undergraduate degree. And there was a Human Development Lab at BYU. That’s where I did my undergrad degree. It was a preschool lab. And so as part of my education, I would go and watch these preschool kids play. And it was always fascinating to see the different styles of play that kids adopt as they move through different developmental stages. And there are definitely different types of play and different types of play. As kids move through the developmental stages. That play teaches us how to cooperate with others, how to stand up for ourselves. Play teaches us boundaries, and the limits of boundaries. Play helps establish pecking order, and provides opportunities to develop competence and confidence. Play is especially critical for the fast developing brains have kiddos, but we still need play as adults, you know, like I think of all the night games, and all the games of kickball. And really, I mean, that’s how I learned rules. That’s how I learned boundaries. That’s how I learned for sure pecking order, and communication and a sense of fairness and right and wrong. And I’m not saying I didn’t learn these at home, because I definitely learned all of these things at home. But it absolutely reinforced in play. Because you were with peers, you were with other kids your age. And so you know, you had some kids that were establishing dominance, you had other kids who really cared about their relationships and everyone’s feelings and this sense of fairness and right and wrong was always a really big component of play. And I really do think it was such a such a gift of my childhood that I grew up in a neighborhood with a lot of kids there were always there were always a lot of kids around and that it was always really fun a lot of friends to hang out with. So by definition, play is purposeless, all consuming, and fun. But as Stewart brown illustrates, plays anything but trivial. So there is a biological drive that’s as integral to our health as sleep or nutrition plays essential to develop social skills and adult problem solving skills. So just like I mentioned, and we’re really designed by nature to flourish through play Stewart browns, research shows that play is not just joyful and energizing, but it’s deeply involved with human development and intelligence.
Dr. Melissa Smith 9:10
And I think while most of us appreciate that play is central for children and really key to their development. The argument that brown makes, and certainly the research that he reviews in his book and his own research makes the case that it is also essential for us throughout the lifespan. So for adults, for older adults for retired adults in plane, our burdens feel lighter, and we’re open to new possibilities. But play goes even deeper. It shapes our brains to make us smarter and more able to adapt to situations which that’s very cool. Our success as an innovative culture rests first on our recognizing the importance of play, and then on allowing play in our daily Life. So it’s really that important. So this is this is cool. This is fun stuff. Second, what are some of the key benefits of play? And why is it essential to living a balanced life? So what do we need to know when it comes to play? So first of all, which I’ve already alluded to humans are hardwired for play. So we have evolved to play. It’s true for humans, and it’s true for animals. So if you watch mammals, they play as well. Of course, play carries some risk. But what we have learned through the research is that benefits outweigh the benefits outweigh the risks, because it really does help our brains and bodies develop. So he gives the example of cubs who play and wrestle, and that this helps them to learn some of the limits of play and helps them to prepare for how do they track their territory as they get older? How do they know the limits of boundaries as they get older. And it’s the same way for us you think about relationships and boundaries. With kiddos on the playground, you figure out what those boundaries are by testing those boundaries. So from Stewart Brown, he says The truth is that play seems to be one of the most advanced methods nature has invented to allow a complex brain to create itself. So the first benefit humans are hardwired for play. The second benefit play is strongly correlated with success. So from Brown, there’s a kind of magic in play. What might seem like a frivolous or even childish pursuit, is ultimately beneficial. It’s paradoxical that a little bit of quote unquote non productive activity can make one enormously more productive and invigorated in other aspects of life. When an activity speaks to one’s deepest truth, it is a catalyst enlivening everything else. So it can really connect you to purpose, it can connect you to passion, it can give you a shift in perspective, giving yourself a break from work is essential for developing fresh eyes as you return to work. And play, of course, provides a valuable, valuable perspective, it helps you take life less seriously, and your anxieties less seriously. And that is a really great benefit from play. So a third benefit of play is that it is essential to well being and survival of both humans and animals. So from Brown stepping out of a normal routine, finding novelty, being open to serendipity, enjoying the unexpected, embracing a little risk and finding pleasure in the heightened vividness of life. These are all qualities of a state of play. So as I mentioned at the beginning, clay is present focused, which is consistent with a mindful approach to life, which is also correlated with happiness, peace and well being. What Brown says is that when plays denied over the long term, our mood darkens, we lose our sense of optimism, optimism, and we become a hedonic or incapable of feeling sustained pleasure.
Dr. Melissa Smith 13:16
Can you relate to this? I mean, I know if I, if I don’t have a break from work, I start to flatten in terms of my effect. I wouldn’t necessarily call it depressed, although it certainly can lead to that for some people. But I just like the the pleasure in my for the joy, or just the perspective is lost. If you don’t have a break from work. Brown says that the opposite of play is not work. It’s depression. So think about that. The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression. What we know is that for most of our kids in school recess, time has gone down. As pressure mounts for kids to have more book time in order to compete in a global economy. Boy, we’re just totally undermining ourselves with this. At the same time, academic scores are plummeting. So we’re not getting the increases in the academic scores, and health is declining, attention and conduct. concerns are increasing. And we wonder why we have a problem. And the reality is that biologically, we’re geared for play and kids need to play adults need to play. And so when we take away this essential element of being human, we suffer.
Dr. Melissa Smith 14:45
So physically, cognitively, emotionally, we suffer, we suffer. The cool thing that Brown points out is that some school districts are starting to resist the trend. And they’re also seeing that this move towards less recess and more academic time is not an official. And so they have challenged this and they’re seeing some pretty impressive results. So he talks about the this school district in Illinois, the Naperville school district, and they’ve overhauled how they approach physical education. And they really focus on increasing aerobic activity, and encouraging lifelong activity directed by the students themselves. So it’s really geared towards play where the students get to choose what they do. So they need to be active. So that’s not optional, that they get to choose what they do. And what they’ve seen is the academic performance has increased dramatically, in response to the physical health improvements. And that’s the other thing, the physical health has also improved greatly. And really, like when we take a step back and think about this, it really shouldn’t surprise us, we need balance in our lives. So key to the impressive findings is that the students were able to choose among many activities, and they were able to pick activities that were fun for them. And some of the activities were structured, some of them included team events, but a lot of them were individual, and there was a lot of flexibility in them. So I think that’s, that’s also pretty cool, because it kind of fit with those characteristics of play.
Dr. Melissa Smith 16:23
Another benefit is that play is critical to the development of social skills, problem solving skills, intelligence, and emotional intelligence plays where we learn to negotiate social relationships. So I’ve mentioned this already, but when I think of my neighborhood night games, oh, if you couldn’t let go of a grudge, you would not be invited for night games like you would not last very long. If you wind every time you were knocked out of the game, you wouldn’t have any friends. And of course, this pattern continues to be true in adulthood, right? Like you got to learn to cope, you got to learn to get along with others, you got to stop complaining, you’ve got to be fair, you’ve got to be reasonable, you got to be a good sport, we can all think of the jerk on the golf course, that we don’t want anything to do with. And so the development of social skills and problem solving skills are all key to the development of emotional intelligence, in which you’re able to understand both your emotional experience, but also the experience of those around you.
Dr. Melissa Smith 17:29
So this, this idea of social astuteness, or awareness of what’s going on with others, and being able to read social cues, is developed the play and so if we think of some kiddos who are not naturally attuned to towards social play, and who resist that, and so don’t get a lot of social play, they lose the opportunity to develop these social skills. And so even if it doesn’t come naturally, and they resist it, we still want to look for opportunities, where they can develop some of these skills, even though we recognize that that might be more challenging for them. Because the the social milou, right or the, you know, if we think about that, like a good way of saying that it’s play, playing with other kids is an important way where we develop some of those skills, which are actually critical skills when we think about adulthood. And going back to this idea of emotional intelligence, that’s actually a key differentiating skill when it comes to leadership. And when it comes to success in the workplace, and I would just say success in life. So it’s not a small thing.
Dr. Melissa Smith 18:50
So from from Stuart Brown, he said, “I have gathered and analyzed 1000s of case studies that I call play histories, I have found that remembering what play is all about, and making it part of our daily lives are probably the most important factors in being a fulfilled human being. The ability to play is critical not only to being happy, but also to sustaining social relationships, and being a creative, innovative person.”
Dr. Melissa Smith 19:19
Okay, so a few keys there. So play, the ability to play is critical to not only happiness, but sustaining social relationships, and being a creative, innovative person. So some big, big keys right there. Another important benefit: play increases creativity and innovation. So right he just alluded to that, which is the hallmark of successful organizations. We know that this makes play essential at work. Play helps you think outside of the box, consider novel alternatives, and approach problems from divergent perspectives rather than taking a circumscribed view. So Brown argues that play is the mother of invention, not necessity.
Dr. Melissa Smith 20:04
Another benefit: play helps you cope with the demands of stressful work and playing with coworkers can be particularly helpful. So it helps you to let off steam. So sometimes the morbid jokes in the emergency department can be very functional, can help you to cope with the stressful work. So my guy friend works in medicine, and they have their really morbid inside jokes, but it serves a very important function. And they also have a lot of practical jokes and just what I would call like really juvenile behavior. And they’re playing at work. It’s never like out of line or anything like that. But it’s a way that they cope with very stressful work and a way that they find to play at work. Another benefit play helps you gain mastery over subject because it requires you to stick with something, but also to be open to serendipity novelties, alternative perspectives, and reactions such as Huh, that’s funny. So outcomes, you don’t expect lead to new discoveries. But if there is no play, you will tend to summarily dismiss outcomes that don’t fit your expectations. So as he did some of this research, and especially talked with researchers in the, in the sciences, about how they came to some of these discoveries, because these were very successful researchers, they said that one of the responses to findings that was most telling, was this responsive, Hmm, that’s funny, right. So when you get an unexpected result, that kind of leaves you scratching your head, or is odd, or you don’t know what to make of it. It helps you to write like this, this ability to look at the world differently. And the sense of play helps you to be open to new ways of making sense of things. Whereas like, if you don’t have any play in your life, you would just you would just dismiss that instead of saying, Oh, that’s funny. You just be like, That’s ridiculous. And we’re moving on, or you wouldn’t even notice it at all. And so that was something that he found, especially in the sciences. So there’s room for play everywhere, whether it’s in a research lab, whether it’s in a hospital, whether it’s in business, another benefit, play connects you to purpose, in moments of play, you are free to be present and fully engaged. So these moments are inspiring and invigorating and can connect connect you to purpose, happiness, and joy. So play can help you connect to your life purpose, and really overcome that pressure to conform, and do what is expected.
Dr. Melissa Smith 23:05
Okay, so first, we’ve talked about what is play, and then second, we’ve talked about what are the key benefits of play? And why is it essential to living a balanced life? And now, we are going to talk about what can you do to add more play in your life. So this is where it’s fun, and we want to talk about solutions for you to add more play in your life. So now you know the many benefits of play. And of course, the problem is that most of us get the play beat right out of us through rigid structure, pressure expectations, and calls to grow up and being an adult. And I would just say what a disservice. So let’s, let’s think about how we can add some more play into your life.
Dr. Melissa Smith 23:50
So solution, one, start with adding physical activity in your life. And this is really the very, very first place to start. So if you can only do one thing, do this. This helps break past mental defenses. So a group of aerobics class a recreation volleyball League, pickleball, Pickleball is a huge thing in our community right now. taking a walk, even some solo gym time is better than nothing. So allow yourself to skip pop, or jump or row. Try hula hoop. Who cares if you look silly, that’s actually half the point. So just starting to use your body and physically move is a way to start to incorporate more play in your life. solution to Okay, sorry, I gotta say something about this physical activity in your life. So I I’m kind of a gym rat. I love my gym time. And so I’m there most mornings. There’s like a solid crew there. And no, you’ve got your regulars there. We’re kind of all doing our own thing, but sometimes I think is really funny. Just to kind of watch Do people watching at the gym? First of all, it’s kind of actually hilarious. But it’s really funny to see what people are doing with their bodies with the different exercises, I mean, some of it’s actually really ridiculous looking. And it’s kind of, it’s kind of funny, it’s kind of entertaining. And I’m not talking about like, in a mocking, judgy way or anything like that. But it’s just kind of fun to think about, like, the human body. And that, especially with physical activity and exercise, like we kind of give ourselves permission to not be so adult like, and that’s really refreshing to me. And so I kind of liked that people watching at the gym, and just recognizing like that. We’re, we’re humans, and we have bodies, and we’re meant to use them and, you know, fully use them. And so I just, I think that’s a great thing.
Dr. Melissa Smith 25:49
Okay, solution two: spend time with animals, or even watch animal videos. So you’ve officially been given permission to watch catch cat videos. And Stuart brown actually talks about this with his book, that even watching, like animal videos can connect you to play. So I have a pup who I love so much. And she loves to play. I mean, she’s like, she’s an old pup. She’s not a puppy anymore. But she loves to play and like she has her blanket. And she loves to play, she loves to go on a walk. And she gets so excited to go on a walk. And she loves to play fetch and everything like that. And it’s like, so great. So even spending time with animals can help connect you to play and it’s it really helps you to be present. And in the moment.
Dr. Melissa Smith 26:37
Solution three, take some time and remember how you played as a child. So what did you do? How did you feel right about these experiences and see if you can reconnect with the joy you felt playing as a child. So then the goal becomes to be on the watch for activities that help connect you to the same feelings. Remember the feeling of true play and let that be your guide. So maybe you want to talk to your siblings and your childhood friends and reminisce together. And this can really help jog your memory, and help you connect to these feelings. So for me, you know, bike riding is something that I do as an adult. But it’s also something that I loved doing. As a kiddo. Like I love the cool breeze, because I was in Idaho. So there with you riding a bike, it was a cool breeze. I love the cool breeze against my face when I was pedaling. And I loved being able to get places fast. And I loved being mobile. I loved being connected to my surroundings, and yet totally in my own world. And that’s one of the things that I love about biking today. Like I love being connected to my surroundings and being in nature. And yet also, I feel like I’m kind of in my own little cocoon when I’m on my bike. So take a trip down memory lane, and identify one to two key memories, and then begin to identify some options that you’d be willing to try out.
Dr. Melissa Smith 28:09
So another thing that I am currently considering is rock climbing. So I think it might reconnect me to my days of climbing trees, although hopefully more safely because I’m not 10 years old anymore. But see if you can identify one or two key memories of play that you were like super excited about or that you really enjoyed. And think about ways that you can maybe reconnect with those. So my son, he’s an adult and he’s in a kickball league right now, which is like very cool and really fun. And it actually reminded me of my days playing kickball as a kiddo. So there’s all sorts of fun ways to reconnect with that solution for play with others, play’s more fun with others. So I love to hike with friends we get to explore catch up, and of course solve the world’s problems. I especially love hiking with my pup because I start to see the mountain through her eyes and through her eyes. Everything is amazing. That rock is amazing that bush is amazing. Like it’s all pretty remarkable. When I see the world through my dog’s eyes.
Dr. Melissa Smith 29:23
Solution five be a novice. So I think this is a really great one. And I think if you’re high achieving, this can be a challenging one. So learn to play for plays sake. So leave your competent leader self in the office. If you have to be good at play. You will turn it into work. I promise you you will. So I just want to share an example of this of how I did this, which was not cool. I didn’t it was not a good thing. So years ago I got into triathlons. Because I thought that would be fun. And it was fun, it was a lot of fun. But I, I turned it into work, because I got overly focused on my numbers and my training times, and making sure I got all my workouts in, and my races and all that sort of thing. And like all of those things can be good, and they can be valuable. But the reason I started to do triathlon in the first place was so that I could have more life balance, and so I could have more play, and more leisure time in my life. And so if I was taking this activity, which was designed to have more balance, and fun, and play and relaxation, and I was turning into work, and rigidity and structure and obsession and compulsion, then it was completely undermining the whole point of it. And so for me, that was not a good thing. And so, you know, with this solution, we really want you to think about playing for play sake and learning to be a novice and recognizing that, you know, what is the point of the activity? Is it to connect with friends? Is it to play with family? Or do you have to be the best person on the field? Or do you have to be the fastest person out there, because if it’s about proving a point, or if it’s about competing, and winning, then you’ve probably lost the point, and you probably are going to drain some of the benefits out of it. And I’m not saying that competition is a problem necessarily. But you don’t want that to be the only focus or the most important focus. Because there’s definitely not anything wrong with competition, but we just want to have some balance in that. And so if you tend to approach things in an unbalanced way, which Yeah, that’s me, then this solution around being a novice and being really intentional about, okay, why am I doing this, and how can I approach it in a balanced way can be really helpful. So that you can really gain the benefits from play and it, you know, it doesn’t become something that’s stressful, or one more thing that you’ve got to do.
Dr. Melissa Smith 32:24
Okay, and this is very similar to the last point, but solution, six, play in balance. Remember that just as an anything balanced is really key. So rest and recovery are important. If you play all the time, you’ll obviously undermine yourself. And if you turn play into work, you will drain it of all the benefits. So remember that the plays un-structured and it’s purposeless, and sometimes play is requires work, right.
Dr. Melissa Smith 32:54
So my guy friend just did this big 100 mile bike ride, self supported bike ride down in Moab. And I would definitely count that as play. But it was also a heck of a lot of work for him. And it required a lot of him. And now he probably doesn’t want to get on a bike for a few days as part of his rest in his recovery as part of that, and so we recognize that we want to play in balance. That balance also requires effort and work and it’s not. It’s not just 100% pleasure necessarily. And that there is effort, and work involved in that. I was also thinking about this last weekend, we went paddleboarding, which was really fun. I love paddleboarding. But there’s also like a lot of work that goes in to that what you know, there’s the effort of paddle boarding, which is a lot of fun. But also just like getting everyone loaded up and getting the paddle boards loaded up and getting up to the lake and everything like that. And so there’s there’s energy around that that you just want to pay attention to.
Dr. Melissa Smith 34:01
So I wanted to end with a great quote from Dr. Brown’s book because he totally makes a reference to one of our major themes here in the podcast, which I love. So here you go. He says, “if your life has become barren, play brings it to life again. Yes, as Freud said, life is about love and work. Yet play transcends these, infuses them with liveliness, and stills times arrow play is the purest expression of love.”
Dr. Melissa Smith 34:32
So I think that’s great play is the purest expression of love. So I hope today I’ve converted you to being a believer in play if you weren’t already and that you will try and if you have to schedule in some play time for yourself. And of course the summer is a great time and place to do that. So make sure you head on over to my website, check out the show notes, with all the great resources for this episode at www.drmelissasmith.com/episode-9. Again that’s www.drmelissasmith.com/episode-9. So check it out, we’ve got some great show notes with a list of the resources. And then of course if you liked this show, I would love it if you go to iTunes and give us a review so more people can find us. I’d love to hear from you and hear what you think of the podcast and to hear what you would love to hear more about on the podcast. I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work in love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai