29 August 2017

By Phil Waters. Phil is the Co-founder and Creative Director of I Love Nature, a social enterprise in Cornwall that provides training, outdoor education, play consultancy and research. Phil’s work brings together play, narrative and nature within a form of practice called Narrative Journey, which has more recently culminated in a doctorate with the European Centre for Environment and Human Health, University of Exeter Medical School.

Photo of young adult on an inflatable playarea

Play is often synonymous with childhood. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a childhood without play. What would school playgrounds be like without games, beaches without sandcastles, trees without climbers, streets without… okay, the latter is already in decline. But what about factories, hospitals, universities and elderly residential homes? Do adults play too? And if so, is it different from childhood play?

Theorists suggest that play is beneficial across the whole lifespan. It builds and shapes the architecture of the brain, contributes to the healthy development of bodies, supports social cohesion and shapes culture. Some say it is imitation of life, others say it is real life. Some say it is serious, others say it is frivolous. Some see the benefits of play for education, health and mental well-being, while others say it should not be ambushed for other purposes - play for play sake.

It is true that the young of most species display a form of behaviour we could categorise as play, and that some of these attributes are not as easily distinguished in adults. How do we know when someone wants to play, or is in the throws of playing?

Play theorists tell us that many different species have what is called a play face. A face that signals to another that they want to play. My dogs, for example, are experts at signalling play to each other. Usually started by Lily, she will often stick her rear end in the air, wag her tail, and drop down and forward with her paws extended, eyes wide open. Darwin, her brother, interprets this as a cue that he ought to chase her. Her body and her face speak a code that Darwin, and me too, understand as play. On occasion, I mimic Lily’s body language and position myself low and forward as if to run, which she sees as a play cue and comes full belt at me. In short, all of this amounts to a shared interpretation of play behaviour that, remarkably, can happen across species.

So, do adults play? The short answer is yes, but they manage to disguise their play under layers of appropriate ways of being where the play face and their body language is not always obvious, and where being frivolous, silly and spontaneous is often frowned upon. But what if we think of play differently, and not look for external cues to inform us of someone’s playability? What if we chose to look at play as more than just behaviour? More than what can be observed from the outside?

Take this example:
Imagine four people digging a hole in the sand on a beach. One person digs at that hole with the expectation of coming out ‘down under’. Another is on their way to the centre of the earth. Another likes the physicality of digging, while the fourth, likes the idea of finding treasure. They’re all displaying the same behaviour, digging a hole in the sand, yet their approaches are different.

Play, while it is defined as external behaviour that is observed by others, is also what we bring to situations. It is within us. Whether we’re digging a hole in the sand or shopping at the supermarket, our approach to these situations can be sensible and serious (the usual default mode of adults), or playful. If the research on playfulness is to be believed, then being playful as an approach to life suggests you’ll live a long, happy and healthy one.

Being playful primes your body for action. Being playful keeps your grey matter active and healthy. Being playful enhances creativity. And playful people are more sociable and likeable with strong networks of friends. Playful living provides the social glue that maintains active, friendly and cohesive communities for all, young or old, big or small and, across species.