We all know theoretically that being playful is not only more fun, but can be useful. And yet we give ourselves so little freedom to explore and play with freedom and curiosity. I am often struck by the specific circumstances in which people do give themselves permission to play freely. My 10-month old nephew is prime example. As soon as people see him, they bend down, squeal, and join his games.
In some situations I am extremely playful. The first time that I entered a gymnastics gym at 18 years old I was overwhelmed that such a place existed – and that I could be allowed in! I remember running the distance of the gym, between trampoline, high bar and tumble track, marveling that all of this equipment existed in the world and that I could play on it.
But what gives us freedom to play under certain circumstances and not in others? Why, with my nephew, do strangers on the street allow themselves to say hello when otherwise they would look away? How did my enthusiasm in gymnastics make it possible to do the impossible?
When someone is in pain their brain literally shuts down. fMRI show that there is much less neural activity when the body is in physical or emotional pain. Pain therefore literally leaves less room for learning. Thus, one function of play is to expand neural activity, increasing the likelihood for new connections to be formed within the brain.
If I’m uncomfortable I cannot be playful. Fortunately, the reverse also hold true: when I am playful I automatically become comfortable. Lat week I made my first I attempt at stand-up comedy. I joked about getting beat up in middle school. On stage the events were so exaggerated that the results were funny (at least to me!). The experience of talking about experiences that were at the time very challenging required a degree of mental flexibility that I found freeing. Creating a humorous situation out of a controversial one is just another way of stretching the brain and creating new connections.
If play allows for a flexible approach to the study of anything, seriousness limits the ways in which we can explore. When we are stubborn or stuck there are literally fewer options available.
In addition to playfulness allowing for broader exploration, it creates the possibility for more active, enthusiastic engagement with the material presented. How come? Playfully presented material is more likely to be remembered. We remember experiences we enjoy.
Finally we have reached the simplest and most compelling reason of all: play is more fun. Simple as that. Who has a more enjoyable experience: the man who awkwardly averts his eyes or the woman who squats down to look my nephew in the eyes and make funny faces? I know which activity I enjoy more (and – of course – I have never awkwardly averted my eyes! Not ever…)
In the last few weeks I’ve been noticing where I am playful and where I’m not. By noticing trends I’ve begun to take the level of flexibility and enthusiasm I have in certain areas and transfer into others. Begin to notice where you are the most playful in your life. To begin, I suggest noticing where you are playful in your life, too.