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The Psychological Case for Adult Play Time

Coloring books and ball pits are much-needed therapy for the inner child in all of us.
(Photo: lola1960/Shutterstock)

(Photo: lola1960/Shutterstock)

For adults, play time is far from over.

Exhausted by the crushing yoke of their daily obligations, adults around the world are flocking to the playgrounds of their childhoods in search of relaxation and release. Not surprisingly, an entire cottage industry has subsequently sprouted up to help world-weary workers satiate their inner child. In Brooklyn, an adult preschool lets office drones finger paint, participate in arts and crafts, and re-enact schoolyard favorites like show and tell for as little as $333 a class. In the United Kingdom, a design studio opened a ball pit just for grown-ups, while laughter clubs in India offer a form of both spiritual and physical exercise for disgruntled citizens. And this week, the two best-selling books on Amazon were “adult coloring books” published by Scottish illustrator Johanna Basford.

Being a kid, it seems, is back in. But what are we to make of this sudden nostalgia for the carefree play time of our youth? Is this fixation an infantilizing trend, part of the Millennial generation’s unwillingness to grow up and face the world? Recent research has shown that people of all ages benefit from unstructured play time as a respite from the grind of daily life. According to research, play can relieve stress, boost creativity, improve brain function, and improve our relationships with other people by fostering trust with others: It’s accepted by psychologists and researchers as an essential component for childhood development—and a lack of play time is seen as a major health obstacle for poor and inner-city children.

Play, psychologists argue, is on the decline—and that has negative consequences for kids and adults alike. A 2011 article in the American Journal of Play shows not just how much children's play time has declined, but how its absence in adolescence can lead to a heap of behavior issues later in life, including depression and anxiety. And according to the study’s author Peter Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston College, the adults are to blame. "Since about 1955, children’s free play has been in continuous decline, at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children’s activities," Gray wrote in the study. “Over the same half century that play has declined, the mental health of children and adolescents has also declined.”

"By abandoning play, we’re abandoning an important part of ourselves."

Play isn’t just important for kids—it’s beneficial to our society. It’s time for adults to take it seriously, both for their sake and for their childrens’. Pacific Standard spoke to psychologist Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, director of Temple University’s Infant and Child Laboratory and author of Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less, about the nature (and importance) of play time for adults.

What exactly is "play"? Compared to defined "grown-up" activities like, say, sports and video games, it seems like a broad, vague category of activity.

Well, as Wittgenstein noted in Philosophical Investigations, it’s very, very hard to define what play really is. There are three main characteristics that we tend to use when we talk about play: It’s voluntary in the sense that you’re not obligated to do it; it’s flexible and can be changed or manipulated, like Play-Doh for your life; and it’s enjoyable and fun.

When you think about it, there’s not enough of this in our lives. It’s a problem of our modern, work-obsessed society: We’ve lost play in the hustle and bustle of our lives. We spend our time between our jobs, our kids, being on Twitter and Facebook to catch the current trends. Who has time to breath, let alone to be outside and be active, right?

But play isn’t a human luxury. We know that goats play and dogs play and monkeys play and humans play—you don’t have to be taught it, and there must be an evolutionary reason for that. By abandoning play, we’re abandoning an important part of ourselves.

Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek. (Photo: Temple University)

Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek. (Photo: Temple University)

Why is play so important for childhood development?

First, play doesn’t have consequences in the same way that real life does: When we want to blow off steam, this is the way we do it without having trouble. But play is also how children explore the world around them and themselves. Playing without consequences, without someone looking over your shoulder, and even without a set goal lets us discover the world around us. It helps give children the capacity to make decisions, to solve problems, to build and experiment and transform. Think of Tom Sawyer: His imagination, his play, was in the service of figuring out who he was, and the limits of self.

More generally, for both children and adults, it really gives us a chance to build our imagination. The fantastical becomes real, the real becomes fantastical; we can try out a new hypothesis without consequence.

This one thing that we’ve lost in our society is the understanding that exploration, understanding, and creating thinking is what got us to where we are, that made America the “idea nation,” the country that founded Apple and IBM, that invented the car and the airplane. Why is it always us? It’s because we had people who weren’t afraid to try out ideas and fail along the way and have the grit to stick with it—and learning that comes from play.

Does the impact of play change depending on the activity? I could imagine coloring and ball pits having different benefits to our development.

Certain kinds of play are more geared toward learning and discovery and curiosity. When you’re playing with a block tower, or putting together a motor, or writing a new song—that's play as well. That kind of imaginative stuff often has a kind of learning goal, and we’re sort of moving toward it through our exploration.

But there are other kinds of play that are just there to be frivolous, so we can move around and jump and act, like leaping into a ball pit.

Does this change as we get older?

The impact doesn’t. Play matters, no matter how old you are. The only thing that’s changed is the stigma. We associate play with childhood, and therefore “playing” with childishness.

But our capacity for play certainly shifts. I think we lose our imagination a bit as we go through school and we’re told that there’s one right answer for everything the world will throw at us. The less we’re in situations where we feel it’s OK to fail, the more likely we are to stop playing. And when we do play, it’s more like “play by the rules”: We’re more likely to play tennis or football or soccer than we are to sit down and simply play in an unstructured manner. But it’s not even that our hobbies have changed. The structure of daily life is so busy that we’ve drummed out a lot of space for natural play.

And there’s a hunger for it! As you see in these popular examples—coloring books bringing back the images of childhood, and the allure of jumping into a ball pit—we’re longing to get play back. We want to just run around and make it frivolous, and allow ourselves to create, and allow ourselves to fail. It feels so good.

We can color outside the lines without anybody telling us what the right way to go is, without bosses or anybody looking over our shoulder. Play is a crucible not just for self-discovery and freedom, but for joy. We don’t have much pure joyfulness in our lives.

If we’re longing for play, why is there such a stigma against adult play time?

Think about the world we live in. You’re supposed to answer your emails within 30 seconds, or you’re considered negligent. If somebody asks “How are you?,” the appropriate answer is “busy.” Is that really an appropriate answer? No.

Is this a distinctly American thing? The emphasis on productivity.

In France, they’re still allowed to take a month off for adult play, so yes. But Americans are so invested in being on the leading edge, the nation in charge, that we haven’t given the population, all of us, each other, a chance for downtime. We pride ourselves on not going on vacation, and frankly that's not healthy. My sense is that the global economy has made some of this worldwide, and we’re racing faster and faster.

It’s almost like we’re going in the opposite direction.

We’re not going to become this nation if we’re so rigid and we’re still on treadmills; we have to jump in ball pits. Play is for all of us and it can help us achieve goals that we never thought possible.

It also doesn’t help that we basically have a sedentary nation. Some say sitting is the new cancer. We're not an active nation anymore. People do better when they’re acting and moving rather than just sitting and staring.

Sitting and screening, apparently: A lot of play has become centered on screens.

Technology has taken over a lot of our loose attention. It’s part of the sitting phenomenon: We’re constantly facing a screen. And that has consequences for our species.

There are people who study chimps vs. humans. Humans have one thing over the chimps: We’re ultimately ultra-social—that's what allows us to jump evolution and recreate culture and transmit this to the next generation. What a wonderful thing we have in social interaction.

Look, I love screens, they’re incredibly useful and I’m thrilled they exist, but I’d like to see us a little bit more with people, honest-to-God living, breathing people. You can play together on a computer, but it’s not the same as the unstructured, free-flowing play that drives creativity.

How do you play?

I play with musical stuff; I love to invent things. I’m also a tennis player. I discovered new magnet blocks recently and was very excited about that. I still play with Legos. And you know those tape dispensers with the tape that you tear off? I love to play with the tape.

I have instilled these values in my children. In the beginning people teased me—“my kids go to cooking and soccer lessons” and all the overbearing stuff you do in the suburbs of Philadelphia. But now I look back on my 32- and 30- and 25-year-olds and I am blown away by who they are as creative and kind human beings. I’m sure part of it was that no one ever robbed them of play.

(Photo: Deborah Kolb/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Deborah Kolb/Shutterstock)

What do you think of the latest trend in adult play spaces? What would you like to see happen in the future?

Cities are supposed to be interaction machines, but they don’t really work that way anymore. I would love to re-imagine what a cityscape would look like if it were more playful, if street life had things that allow for you to play at bus stops and on sidewalks. I imagine a world where we’re constantly thinking and constantly growing through play instead of smartphones and smart cities.

In the next few months, we’ll see more stuff like those coloring books and adult playgrounds. We’ll see more companies jumping in to offer commercial goods for adult play. This is great, but the challenge is this: Can you see the world we live in differently in a way that would make opportunities for playfulness everywhere, organically? It will make the world so much more exciting. Everywhere we go there are opportunities for play; if only we rub our eyes, open them again, and see the world differently.

We still try to escape the stresses of the world by letting loose, mostly through things like smoking and drinking. But imagine if you didn't even need a substance to let loose. That’s what play is for: It’s a whole new type of drug.

The rise of the ball pits and coloring books and adult preschool suggests that, finally, people are waking up to the play they’ve been missing and asking: What kind of a world do I really want for me and my family and kids? I think in the process it will create a smarter generation.

What would you tell people looking to add more play to their lives?

Re-ignite the child inside! The stigma around play is there, but it's our job to fight back and understand that we all really love to play.

I believe we’re on the verge of a revolution in how we balance work and play. Imagine a billion people pushing for play time, not in a frivolous way or a way that negates progress, but in a way that supplements and allows us to make even more progress. It's time to put play back into our lives.