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  • Mallory Foster

How to Play - As an Adult

Some of the moments that bring me the most joy in my work as a Tinkergarten leader, yoga teacher, and former new teacher coach are the moments where adults are fully immersed in whatever they are doing in a joyful way. Whether that's tackling something like writing classroom rules or smooshing mud to build a castle with a kiddo or roaring like a lion louder than any kiddo in the room, these moments are so pleasant to see. At first, I didn't realize what was so special about these moments, it took my a while to realize that these are moments of play - something I don't think many adults get enough time for in their lives. In this post, you'll find out a bit about what play is, why it's valuable, and some ways to play in your life :).

This mama loves mud play as much as the Explorers and it makes me smile every time we have a mud play day!

What is play and why is it important?

Dr. Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play points out that play evolved pre-verbally. Watch puppies and new babies and you'll see them play. Play is something we are biologically made to do and that can make it a bit complex to define. Dr. S Brown's stab at a definition of play includes that it is done for it's own sake, play is pleasurable and non-repetitive. Play gives us a sense of well-being and feels meaningful. Our choices for how we play are flavored by culture and personal differences (temperament, gender, etc). At it's root, play helps creatures survive. We might be tempted to divide child play and adult play, but that would be akin to separating child sleep and adult sleep. Kiddos dream and sleep more, but we don't call it something other than sleep, they may be qualitatively different, but they show the same patterns. Opportunities to play boost dopamine, which keeps us motivated and excited. Overall, play is a mood stabilizer. We may fall into the trap of thinking that the opposite of play is work, but it is not. For children, play IS work (and the main kind of work they should be doing). For adults, play can boost our creativity in problem-solving, improve relationships with colleagues, and increase our motivation to tackle hard tasks. Play is what lets us sit creatively with a problem and see it through. And workplaces DEFINITELY benefit from that. So, what is the opposite of play? Through Dr. S Brown's research, he views the opposite of play to be depression. Additional benefits of play include improved memory, reduced stress, richer relationships, and more joy. (Learn more from Dr. Stuart Brown in this interview and read about benefits of play here.)

Silly moments of play :). Our neighbors *might* think we're crazy :).

So... What gets in the way of play?

As I was thinking of writing this blog post, I remembered that there's a chapter in The Gifts of Imperfection by Dr. Brene Brown focused on play and rest. In her research on wholehearted living and what gets in the way of it (shame), Dr. Brene Brown found that resilient, joyful (or wholehearted) people "fool around a lot" and she dug into this more to realize that play in adulthood is important and often overlooked or shamed (Brown, 2010, p99). In a culture that obsesses over productivity, rest and play (which is why Dr. Brene Brown groups them together) are associated with laziness and reduced productivity, so we generally shun both from our lives. Beyond the busy-ness, I think self-consciousness also gets in the way of play. We might think we look a bit silly if we build an elaborate fairy garden in our backyard. I think some of this is centered in ourselves, and yet, a lot of us probably have heard our ways to play need to be left behind as we enter adulthood - we might hear "being a pro football player is a dream, so now it's time for a real job". Then, there's the logistics. One of my favorite ways to play was through dance. It is hard to find adult dance classes in most smaller towns. Parks and rec sports leagues may not have the sport we like on a day that works for us. Some playful pursuits cost A LOT (climbing, kayaking, some forms of art). We might work in jobs where a moment's break or playful question is not allowed.


How can we break down barriers to play?

1) Change what you envision play to look like. Play might look like a challenge, a doodle, or a weekend dressed up.

When I think about what play can look like in a professional setting, I think back to my time leading professional development. I always loved to include a challenge for the adults I was working with. I might choose a tough math problem and have teachers try to tackle it, modeling their problem solving with LEGOs. Or, we might read a children's book while pretending to be pre-kindgarteners - we'd read a repeated line chorally while one teacher acted antsy and another stumbled over words and a third asked 1000 seemingly irrelevant questions. Through these challenges, teachers would often start to think playfully. They'd choose their own persona and act out how a lesson would go in some hilarious ways. They'd tackle seemingly un-playful tasks like writing classroom rules with chatter between peers. The teaching strategies and classroom protocols that then surfaced from this playful work were more likely to work than some previously imagined ideas. In another setting, at a Tinkergarten event, I got to watch a few parents try to knock a giant dead tree limb out of a tree was hysterical. The parents were so involved in their task, trying to stand on crates, throw other sticks a the limb, hold each other up (don't worry, the area was free of children :). This was play.

While play CAN look like dressing up as a comic character and going to a comic con or playing paintball on the weekend, it can also look much simpler and smaller. Play might be just bouncing an idea around in our own heads at work or doodling in the margins of a notebook at a forever long meeting. If it boosts your well-being and you chose to do it, it's likely playful :).

2) If you have kids or work with kids, your play doesn't have to look like their play, but it sure can be inspired by it!

Here's my little one "doing the work" - playfully cleaning the window, one of her favorite activities to choose. We can learn a lot about how to play by watching little ones.

Kids are like the play pros and we could benefit from hushing and watching them at work :). Kids like to lift heavy sticks and jugs. Maybe you like to lift weights at the gym. Kiddos often like to tell stories and ask lots of questions. Writing stories and poems, reading an article on a topic we are truly interested in, those can all be playful too! Child play roots itself in daily life. For little ones, play is often practice at doing very real work. My little one play sweeps and cooks all the time. This has helped me view even the most menial tasks with a bit more joy and it's inspired me to try new recipes. I definitely don't think of sweeping as play, but I don't forget to do it as often as I used to and I don't begrudge it as much :). Outside, my kiddo might slide down the same slide 18000 times. I might use that time to start a stick fort leaning against a tree trunk that she can help me with or I might start showing her more formalized games by hiding and asking her to look for me :). On a walk, she may gather items and clink them in to a bucket just for the joy of collecting. I might gather items I can use in some beautiful Pinterest craft later :).

3) Play is practice.

Going back to the idea that for kiddos, a child's attempt to do a new thing often leads to play, I think it helps to think of play as practice. The process is definitely more important than the product. Perhaps you choose to practice a new craft or join an adult sports team and have fun socializing and exercising at practice. Starting a new hobby can be an awesome way to prompt more play in your life :). I think this also can counter the stress of our performance-focused society. If we can manage to carve out time to play, we can counteract some of the stress of the daily grind. For this reason, I think it is valuable to notice when your play becomes about the outcome. I had a friend in college who kicked herself off of a soccer team in high school because they felt to aggressive. I had another friend who did not self-regulate their competitive streak and their friends asked them to sit out at some intramural games. My sister is a FABULOUS baker and cook, and she's known for dumping entire trays of cookies if they don't look right. For years, I did not paint because I was not able to stop obsessing over every brush stroke and it became crazy-making. Play is about the process and the choice to engage. When it becomes obsessive, it is time to reframe our play.


So what are some ways to play as an adult?

  • Play like you used to. Revisit a board game you played as a child. Go for a hike with a friend. Pick up leaves and toss them at each other. Play a sport you used to like and see if you still enjoy it. Look up a cinquain (most of us had to write these in school) and write one. Notice if you like poetry. Take a bath and dump water from container to container :). Think back to what you wish you had gotten to try playfully as a kiddo and try it now.

  • Try a different way to play. There's attunement play (when a mommy and baby interact over cooing, finding similarities between ourselves and another person), body/movement play (figuring out what our bodies can do, whether that's a baby crawling or an adult trying a yoga pose), object play (throwing a ball, doing a puzzle), social play (a murder mystery dinner with friends), imaginative and pretend play (board games where you take on a character role), story-telling/narrative play (writing a story or journal or watching a movie), and creative play (making music or crafts, etc!). What will you try next? (Learn more about play patterns here.)

  • Take a kiddo in your life to a play class and participate!! Don't do the work for your kiddo, but get right down into the creating with them! At Tinkergarten, I LOVE it when caregivers get just as muddy as the kiddos. I took HG to an art camp and had fun squirting paint and making music right along with her. Obviously, you can also play at home, but I think classes can spark new ways to play AND we see other adults playing with kiddos which might help cut some self-consciousness later.

  • Do what you love. I have AWESOME friends who have showed me so many cool ways to create and play as adults. I have one friend who has perfectly crafted outfits for herself and kiddos and posts them on Instagram. Another friend works to create the most imaginative miniature Christmas trees ever from pipecleaners. A third friend crochets the most adorable small animals. A friend who is a barista plays with inventing new drinks.

  • Move your body. I sometimes think of CrossFit as playing at a jungle gym for adults. Showing up to practice yoga, to lift weights, to run, to practice a sport - these are freely chosen and promote well-being. It is interesting to note that play at it's truest, isn't always repeated exactly the same way, it is changing. If we are running the same loop over and over and over with a focus on a time goal or a way we'd like our bodies to look, I think we're losing the joy in the process. I love doing hilariously silly Cosmic Kids Yoga videos with my little one or a new Fitness Blender workout that requires absurd amounts of coordination when I need a reminder to be a bit more humble and to take myself less seriously :).

  • Sneak in play at work. I'm sooooo fortunate that my work has always been with the play pros, kiddos and youth, so play is inevitable if I'm doing my job well. A lot of my work happens behind the scenes - planning for a lesson about the moon, prepping ingredients for paint at Tinkergarten, trying to figure out how to explain gate pose to kiddos, creating ridiculous simulations for global carbon cap and trade games for teens... And, I play along the way. Today, I boiled cabbage to use the resulting water to look at pH in Tinkergarten. I spent 10 minutes testing out different things around my house to see how they changed the color of the cabbage water :). Last night, I created a book of "cat math" for a kiddo I teach and played with cat manipulative and blocks to see if the problems I wrote made sense. Play is about process, and the process of getting our work done can be playful. My husband is a musician. Coming up with set lists and choosing variations of a song can be a hilarious process that is quite playful and fun. Perhaps play happens at lunch in a break room. Maybe play is incorporated in silly ways throughout the day. We had these stuffed hearts we hid all over the school one year and there was a month long scavenger hunt to find them.

More Resources:

How does play shape our development? (Ted Talk with Dr. Stuart Brown)

Play doesn't end with childhood: Why adults need recess too

Let's play: How the science of the brain is changing therapy


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