Play School: How indulging in child-like activities turns us into better adults

Read about myriad benefits of incorporating fun activities into our always-on, endlessly productive lives.

Harper's Bazaar India

After I had finished a long, draining period of study in my twenties, and finally handed in a big fat thesis, I decided to dedicate my New Year’s resolutions that year to pure pleasure. I made two—to drink more cocktails and spend more money on clothes—and had an excellent, fancy and slightly giddy year as a consequence.  

Ever since, as someone who pushes themselves relatively hard most of the time, who is careful with time and money and mothering, my resolutions must always be reminders of fun, of the need to insist on lightness.  

Last year was whiskey, which was very jolly. This year, I landed on margaritas and frolicking, which is something I have realised I do not do enough of.  

The dictionary tells us frolicking means to “play or move about in a cheerful and lively way”. Something kids are very good at it. In fact, the example of usage that the dictionary gives is: “The children frolicked on the sand.” It means to gambol, cavort, caper, romp and rollick. To have fun, and to play. 

When I recently heard that there was such a thing as a play coach for adults, I wondered if this was a sign of the end-times. Is this something we really need to be told how to do, like kindergarteners? Something we need to outsource to strangers? 

But when the New York Times ran a piece on the benefits of play recently, they quoted Jeff Harry, “a positive play coach” who said: “One way to think about play is an action you do that brings you a significant amount of joy without offering a specific result.” And this made me pause; in a multi-screened, poly-tasking world where logging onto the internet is like walking into a Moroccan market at dawn, with a thousand peddlers yelling for your attention, the idea of devoting time to something that has no specific end, or purpose, is both novel and, actually, quite liberating. 

As American psychiatrist Stuart Brown told the Washington Post, “What all play has in common, 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.” 

A University of Illinois study found that university students who were “highly playful” (spontaneous, energetic and more likely to “clown around”) were less stressed and more easily able to cope with the anxieties of college life. A Pennsylvania State University study found that being more playful also meant being more attractive to potential partners, which makes sense—who doesn’t fall in love with people who make you laugh? Researchers have found play improves relationships in middle age. And in case you were wondering if ‘playful’ went beyond say, whoopee-cushion placement, a 2017 German study identified four types of playful adults: other-directed (these are people who like fooling around—the afore-mentioned whoopee cushion lovers), light-hearted (those who are carefree), intellectual (those who like playing with ideas and thoughts), and whimsical, (these people like quirky or rare things, and pay attention to the smallest of absurdities).  

Academics say we can learn to be more playful—we just need to make time for it and push ourselves a little. And the benefits are huge: Science tells us play is better for stress, relationships, energy, creativity, brain function, writing, sleep, confidence, and ambition.  

The way people play tells us a lot about who they are.  

Football legend David Beckham likes playing with Lego to beat stress. The Dalai Lama enjoys repairing watches. The young Pope Francis used to dance the tango. The poet Emily Dickinson baked. The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy played chess. The novelist and poet Sylvia Plath kept bees. The British prime minister, Boris Johnson, makes models of buses from old wooden crates and paints “the passengers enjoying themselves on a wonderful bus”. The former president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker plays pinball, telling a reporter: “I like to make noise.” The Queen reportedly likes a glass of bubbly before bed. Israel’s opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, indulges in pistachio ice cream. Irish republican Gerry Adams likes to bounce about on his trampoline in the nude with his dog. Former British prime minister David Cameron was fond of playing Angry Birds and had his own karaoke machine, upon which he liked to sing: “My Way”. Billionaire Warren Buffett plays the ukulele. Actor Susan Sarandon loves ping pong so much she gives tables away as presents. 

When was the last time you played?  

Experts recommend finding things that you enjoyed as a kid, refrain from posting about it so you can truly just enjoy it.  But we’d also need to drop our quest to be perennially productive, and our guilt for allowing some time to get nowhere, achieve nothing, just be. I admit, I am terrible at this.  

But play isn’t entirely without purpose. It can clear the fog of rumination. And paying close attention to one thing can help us see another better. Flannery O’Connor wrote in her book Mystery and Manners, “I know a good many fiction writers who paint, not because they’re any good at painting, but because it helps their writing. It forces them to look at things… Any discipline can help your writing… Anything that helps you to see, anything that makes you look.” 

And our neurons go bonkers for this stuff. As Jia Lynn Yang and Jerry Useem wrote in Fortune magazine, “Your brain, it turns out, isn’t a fixed mass that shapes your behaviour. Your behaviour also shapes your brain. If a gardener takes up a serious interest in engineering, for instance, her neurons form new pathways between previously isolated regions. So the next time you’re considering how to recommit to your job and get better at it, broaden your idea of what it takes to be excellent. Embrace the irrelevant.” 

I’m not going to be hiring a coach, but I’m determined to frolic some more in 2022, to allow myself more time for nonsense and joy, and to stop viewing hours spent playing as somehow squandering time.  

Some of my own favourite ways to play are: to allow myself to swim around in circles, with no purpose, just staring at fish, instead of needing to reach a certain distance. To slide on gum boots when it rains and wade across puddles to the cliffs where I can watch surfers slide down enormous waves. To bake or to play board games with the kids and throw a ball for my lazy dog. To sit for hours and build a sandcastle, dripping turrets and finding sticks for flags as the sun drains from the sky.  

What play does is reframe the way you view, and experience, life. Like the saying attributed to George Bernard Shaw: “We do not stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

Ways to play

Start by thinking of what you enjoyed as a kid that can be translated into an adult activity (for example, climbing trees could become rock climbing; playing with Play-Doh becomes pottery classes). Or, take inspiration from our list:

- Splash in puddles the next time it rains 
- Volunteer at an animal shelter 
- Play Frisbee 
- Pick flowers 
- Finger paint 
- Fly a kite 
- Blow bubbles 


Note: This article originally appeared on Harper’s Bazaar Australia/New Zealand.

Lead Image: Still from Dear Zindagi