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The Definitive Guide to Play

Posted Jun 24 2009 11:36am

I’ve mentioned the Primal concept of play quite a bit recently, and I figured I should clarify what I mean with a comprehensive post.

But Mark! A Definitive Guide to something that is essentially formless, spontaneous, and boundless? Surely you jest!

Before you scoff, consider the current status of play in our society. Think about where “play” as a concept has been relegated – to the “important but ultimately expendable” category.  Roving bands of children out for kicks and innocent thrills who answer only to the streetlights are absent, replaced by Purel-soaked kids being bused to their next “play date.” Working men and women accumulate enough stress for a dozen Groks in the course of a week, putting in overtime and working weekends, only to collapse on the couch in front of the TV once they get home. If they’re lucky, they’ll get a few hours a week on the treadmill or out in the yard with the kids or the dog. When they finally manage to get it, people enjoy play (it is fun, after all), but – whether it’s our Puritan past summoning hidden guilt at the thought of pleasure for pleasure’s sake or the consumerist mentality pushing us to work, work, work – there’s always “real life” calling and interrupting the fun. Pure play has become more of a luxury nowadays or, even worse, is considered to be “kids’ stuff.” But when your kids can’t even play without checking their schedules first, you know there’s a serious problem.

We didn’t always have this problem. In fact, for tens of thousands of years, play was a vital component of communal living and social cohesion among our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Once the kill had been made, or the day’s supply of roots, shoots, nuts and leaves had been gathered, Grok played. No commutes. No stopping at the grocery store for a bouquet of roses for an angry spouse. No rushing to make the bank before it closes. The kids would scamper around, chasing each other. Adults might wrestle, race, have throwing contests, or even just hang out and groom each other. This was pure, unadulterated leisure time, and plenty of it. Play wasn’t just about having fun (though that was a big part of it); it also had practical benefits. Groks that played together formed bonds, strong social ties that strengthened the collective power and safety of the tribe.

Modern hunter gatherers, like the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, work far fewer hours than the modern 40-plus-hours a week worker while enjoying far more leisure time. Despite this gap, one could consider the !Kung more affluent than the average city dweller, simply because they desire and require less material wealth than we do. We can surmise that Grok, too, lived in what anthropologist Marshall Sahlins calls the “original affluent society,” where his desires were mostly limited to food, shelter, companionship, and community, and where those desires were almost always met. Compare that to the time and focus it takes to achieve our desires (new car, condo, grad school tuition, new computer), and it becomes obvious that Grok lived a relatively stress-free life with plenty of playtime.

You need to realize that replicating the stress (or lack thereof) levels of Grok matters almost as much as emulating his diet and fitness. There’s a very real link between exterior stress (especially the “artificial” stress we “civilized” folks exert on ourselves) and disease, and play can be a great way to mitigate its effects.

So we see that this modern aura of expendability surrounding play actually makes getting it more necessary – and more difficult – than ever. We need to unwind from all the stress in our lives, just as Grok unwound from the stress of his, especially when our stress is artificial and arguably more pernicious. What better way than incorporating a little unstructured, endorphin-boosting play in our lives?

Other Benefits

Besides its stress-reducing, social qualities, play has other quantifiable benefits. A New Zealand study showed that workers were 82% more productive following a vacation, and their sleep habits were better. Australian researchers suggested that frequent breaks for sedentary workers results in better weight control and improved triglyceride and blood glucose numbers. The New York Times recently covered a study showing that increasing leisure activities improves immune function faster than stress can suppress it. It seems like the more you reduce stress, the more easily everything else falls into place – no more stress eating, better focus at work, nothing weighing on your mind before bed. Then there’s the fact that playing is simply fun and enjoyable. Isn’t quality of life about health and happiness?

How to Do It

Specific instructions for an unstructured activity are impossible (and counterproductive), but there is a basic guideline: anything goes. That’s about all I can tell you. Any further direction from me or anyone else as to how, what, and when would compromise the spontaneous nature of true play. It’s important to discover your own particular brand of play. Indeed, I think the desire for active leisure is hardwired into our genetics (just look at the benefits), only it’s often smothered by the rigors and pressures of contemporary adulthood.

Play can take many forms. For most of us, we’ll naturally gravitate toward something we enjoy and excel at. I like playing Ultimate Frisbee for my weekly “allotment,” because it’s a fun way to exert myself and I’m pretty good at it. You might go grab a few games of pickup basketball or beach volleyball. Anything works. And although many people lead relatively sedentary work lives (thus making active play a necessity), those of you who live an active daily lifestyle might find pleasure in simply reading or taking in a movie.

The point is, play is meant to address a deficiency in your life. Most of us are stuck inside for too long and the burst of joyous outdoor activity is a counterbalance to that; for those who get plenty of exercise throughout the course of a normal day, relaxing leisure time could be the answer. The important thing is to take the edge off, so make the decision right now to incorporate play into your healthy lifestyle.

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