Not Just Child’s Play

Understanding the Human Element of Play

The Power of Play, Part I


Modern life is chock full of play: playlists, power plays, fair play and foul play. We play it cool, play catch-up (or dress-up), play the field, play to win, and play for keeps. We even play the lottery (and the slots). Unfortunately, none of that is remotely close to play in its truest form.

To understand where we’re missing the metaphorical pirate ship, we must look to children. For them, play is driven solely by the exploration of the act itself—the experience. Unfortunately, as we grow into adults, we swap free play for purposeful productivity that is driven by and focused on one of four specific outcomes: victory, validation, compensation or acquisition. This swap costs us more than it pays, as we miss the multitude of benefits that come from play. Children, on the other hand, play freely and—unlike us—reap those invaluable gifts.

Research reveals that not only is play important, but it is one of the highest human achievements, making our communication, cultural and artistic advancements possible.

Indeed, play is as necessary to our physical and mental development as exercise, rest or nutrition.

“Play is a basic human need as essential to our well-being as sleep.”

Dr. Stuart Brown, Founder of National Institute of Play

To better comprehend the health-play connection, let’s first wrap our adult minds around exactly what “play”entails. According to National Institute of Play Founder Dr. Stuart Brown, “All play 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.”I love Dr. Brown’s perspectivebecauseit involves feelings, outcomes and values.Another definition, byworld-renowned child psychologistBruno Bettelheim,reveals similar thinking: “Play…characterized by freedom from all but personally imposed rules (which are changed at will), by free-wheeling fantasy involvement, and by the absence of any goals outside the activity itself.”


In both definitions, play is considered an action that is both engaging and pleasurable. Quite simply, it’s fun, and fun is an undeniable human value. According to Greatist writer and life coach Susie Moore, fun is a word not often spoken of and yet completely necessary. No amount of goal setting, achievement and hard work will matter if you don’t truly enjoy your life. Requirement #1: fun.


What makes play so much fun? One aspect for sure, is its sense of freedom and flexibility. It removes any attachments we have to time and place, and allows for malleable rules. Detachment, flexibility and freedom are absolutely necessary for balance in a society that frequently links our adequacy or lack thereof to schedules, calendars, time, and place. Developing more “detached flexibility”can actually improve emotional intelligence, by fostering greater focus, acceptance and understanding. And bonus gift? It can help reduce stress. Requirement #2: Detachment and flexibility.


The key point in both experts’ definitions is the importance of the act itself. When we focus on process rather than product, we detach (that word again) from habitual adult limitations of triumph or failure, achievement or stagnancy. When you engage simply for the experience and not the effect, you play. Requirement #3: Process over outcome.

Further distinctions from The National Institute of Play reveal that in its highest form, play is differentiated and integrative, including a variation of mental, emotional and kinesthetic involvement through attunement, body and movement, object, social, imaginative and pretend; storytelling and narrative; and creative.

Every tower needs a foundation. Our  deep understanding of what play is and is not, creates a strong base for our next Jenga piece: a recognition of our own prejudices and biases against play. Come on. Grab your building blocks and join me in Part 2 for our next round of play.