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The Value of Play: Can It Co-exist with Work?

By: Dr. Patrick Williams, EdD, MCC

Too much fun at work: That is something I rarely hear these days in my work coaching people. Yet, I wonder if we don’t discount the value of enjoyment for high performance on the job. There is power in play, even for the most serious of careers.

Studies show that play has a survival advantage in the wild. When young animals engage in rough and tumble pretend-fighting or play, they are learning skills and social rules. Those that play the most, grow more neurons, and have more robust mental as well as physical stamina.

Humans also benefit from play during their entire life span, not just as children and adolescents. In older adults, those who engage in the most cognitive activity (doing puzzles, reading, engaging in mentally challenging work) have a 63 percent lower chance of getting Alzheimer’s disease than the general population.

Adults who continue to explore and learn throughout life are less prone to dementia and less likely to get heart disease. The people who stay sharp and interesting as they age are the ones who continue to play and work.

According to Stuart Brown, MD, author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul (Penguin Books, 2009), the opposite of work is not play. Play and work are mutually supportive. Yet most of us have learned to be serious when it comes to our careers. We squelch our natural drive to have fun.

Play is not the enemy of work; in fact, neither can thrive without the other. We need the newness of play, the sense of flow, imagination, and energy of being in the moment.

We also need the sense of purpose in work: the economic stability it provides, the sense of meaning and competence. The quality that work and play have in common is creativity. In both we are creating new relationships, skills, and making things happen.

Often an overwhelming sense of responsibility and competitiveness can bury our inherent need for variety and challenge. If we deny our need to play, we will eventually fall to stress and burn-out. Recognizing our biological need for play can transform work.

Play helps us deal with difficulties, handle challenges, tolerate routines and emotions such as boredom or frustration. Play provides a sense of expansiveness, promotes mastery, and is vital to the creative process.

What ever happened to unbridled joy in our daily lives? Remember the fun of play as children? Nearly everyone starts out in life playing quite naturally, with whatever’s available. We make up rules, invent games with playmates, fantasize, and imagine mysteries and treasures.

Maybe we need to renew ourselves more through purposeful play. Something happens to most of us as we become working adults: we shift our priorities into organized, competitive, goal-directed activities. If an activity doesn’t teach us a skill, make us money, or further our social relationships, we don’t want to waste time being nonproductive.

Sometimes the sheer demands of daily living and family responsibilities seem to rob us of the ability to play.

“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.” ~ Stuart Brown, MD.

Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, presents his ideas on this TED TV video: Play Is More than Fun. Sprinkled with anecdotes demonstrating the play habits of subjects from polar bears to corporate CEOs, Brown promotes play at every age while defining it thus:

Play is an absorbing, apparently purposeless activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of self-consciousness and sense of time. It is also self-motivating and makes you want to do it again.

We tend to underestimate the power of play. Imagine a world without it – not only the absence of games or sports, but also the absence of movies, arts, music, jokes, and dramatic stories. No daydreaming, no teasing, no flirting. Play is what lifts people out of the routine of the mundane, and offers a means to find joy in even the little things.

Adults who continue to explore and learn throughout life are less prone to dementia and less likely to get heart disease. The people who stay sharp and interesting as they age are the ones who continue to play and work.

When we stop playing, we stop growing-- and we will not experience vital aging, but death waiting.

Play at Work

It’s obvious that play outside of work ̶ through sports, games, family activities, and community functions – is essential. What is less obvious is our need to play at work, as we work. Play – as we work – can energize us, helps us to see new patterns, sparks curiosity, and triggers ideas and innovation.

Play helps us deal with work problems. What kind of play is appropriate at work? You don’t have to engage in off-site team-building games to play at work, although those are occasionally beneficial.

A playful attitude gives people the emotional distance to rally. Often the problem is not the problem; it’s how we react to the problem.

Play is a lubricant that allows individuals to be close to one another. When we play, we don’t put up defensive walls; we accept others as they are. We have a responsibility to play fair. When our interactions are based on a foundation of caring, we avoid hurting others.

Play enables cooperative socialization and nourishes trust, empathy, caring, and sharing. Perhaps one of the biggest advantages to those with a playful mindset is that it stimulates creativity. Playfulness leads to imagination, inventiveness, and dreams – which help us think up new solutions to problems.

Play is what allows us to attain a higher level of existence, new levels of mastery, imagination, and culture. When we play right, all areas of our lives go better. When we ignore play we start having problems. ~ Stuart Brown, MD

I know my motto is, if it isn’t fun, I don’t want to do it and when it isn’t, how can I make it fun….try that and let me know how it impacts your life.

Dr. Patrick Williams is the Founder and Director of Training of The Institute for Life Coach Training and brings with him a wide variety of training in psychology and professional experiences, as well as training as a Coach. His personal approach is eclectic, drawn from his graduate education, life experiences and other professional training.