What Happens When You Don’t Make Time For Play

In a culture of time, money, efficiency and productivity, play is often seen as nonessential. But what if this idea is wrong?

image of children at play for article by Larry G. Maguire

Image of kids playing by Ashton Bingham on Unsplash

In a culture of time, money, efficiency and productivity, play is often seen as nonessential. But what if this idea is wrong?

“Life without play is a grinding, mechanical existence organised around doing the things necessary for survival”. That’s what Dr Stuart Brown says of a life devoid of time spent playing. He goes further and suggests that play can even save your life.

Brown has spent the majority of his career studying play, speaking to lay audiences, assisting families in navigating challenging conditions and consulting with corporations to help them incorporate elements of play into their businesses. He has helped the clinically depressed on their journey to recovery through the use of play therapies.

Throughout his career, he has gathered and analysed thousands of individual case studies. These he calls play histories and has found that play is an essential ingredient in the healthy and fulfilled lives of individuals. He says that the ability to make time for play is not only crucial for happiness, but also for creating and sustaining social relationships and personal creativity.

I’d extend this by suggesting that we include idle time, time spent doing nothing in particular as equally important.

To clarify, I don’t believe hours spent watching TV or staring at smartphone screens mindlessly scrolling through social media feeds qualifies, however. This kind of past time is frivolous, noncomplex and doesn’t produce any longlasting positive feelings. In fact, it’s a form of escape from reality, and it breeds compulsive addictive behaviour.

What I’m talking about, and what I believe Stuart Brown refers to, is activities which are ends unto themselves. For example, walking in the park, hiking in the woods, or kicking a ball with your kids on a Sunday afternoon. Maybe it’s reading a book or browsing a library or taking up a hobby like gardening. These are past times we engage in for no other reason than it makes us smile.

The point is, time spent at play and idle time in contemplation, is critical to productive thought, creativity and a healthy life. And when it’s missing, or we relegate it to second place, our lives may become dysfunctional, unbearable or even destructive.

“It’s paradoxical”, Brown says. “A little bit on ‘nonproductive’ activity can make one enormously more productive and invigorated in other aspects of life”.

“Play shapes the brain and makes animals smarter and more adaptable. In higher animals, it fosters empathy and makes possible complex social groups. For us, play lies at the core of creativity and innovation.” — Dr. Stuart Brown M.D.

Brown says that as children, we didn’t need instruction from others on how to play. We just found what it was that we liked to do and we did it. We learned the rules from our peers, or we invented our own.

Recently I’ve seen this in my youngest child, Cara, who’s six. She took down a Monopoly game from the boys’ bedroom and opened it out on the floor. Her friend called so I invited her in to play too. I asked Cara if they needed help setting up the game and if she knew the rules. She told me, no it’s ok dad, we’ll just make up our own.


But something happens to us as we get older.

It seems education and broader society’s drive for productivity condition us out of our innate propensity for play. Work becomes devoid of enjoyment and serves as merely a means to an end. Work becomes transactional and soleless, and we get lost in the daily grind.

Educator Sir Ken Robinson takes account of this in his book Out of Our Minds. He suggests that human intelligence is profoundly creative and unique and requires development along its inherently creative lines. He says we create the world in which we live by our thought, beliefs and values. He goes on to say;

“Education should help us achieve this [find our creative outlet] but too often it does not and too many people are instead displaced from their own true talents. They are out of their element and out of their minds.”

The truth of the matter is that education systems, in large part, create pawns for the game, workers for the machine. Children, by and large, receive the same education regardless of their abilities, and they grow up believing that they are not really creative at all. They forget how to play.

Having travelled the world, Ken Robinson suggests a paradox. He has found that most children regard themselves as creative; however, most adults see themselves as not. This, he says, indicates a significant problem for work, society and the broader culture of humanity.

“My starting point is that everyone has hugh creative capacities as na natural result of being human. The challenge is to develop them. A culture of creativity has to involve everybody, not just a select few” — Sir Ken Robinson in, Out of Our Minds

Why does a musician play music? She might do so as a career now and make a living from it, but why did she start? What was the impulse to pick up the instrument and try? How about a writer, why would he endure for years without being published?

I have asked my artist and musician friends these questions too. Some of them don’t earn a lot from their work. Some make a living, and none are wealthy from their art. My wife gardens and gets nothing out of it other than the sight of sunflowers standing tall in the garden. I have been writing for years and make very little from it.

If life is about success and achievement and material representations of wealth, why do we bother taking up past times that don’t pay us? And why is it that the work we do for wages, which we use to pay bills and buy things we don’t need, by the way, makes most of us miserable?

I think we’ve got things arse-about-face.

Psychologists who study human motivation and behaviour have been perplexed by the idea that human beings would undertake an activity for no other reason than the enjoyment of the work itself. This seemed to lack credibility.

In his book, The Evolving Self, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi ponders this question. He says that traditional psychological theories of human behaviour suggest that we are motivated by base instincts such as hunger, fear or reward. How could an artist or writer possibly be motivated to stay working days on end without food, water or sleep for no better reason than the work itself?

He says that extrinsic goals are often present in the background, but they are seldom the reason we start. He says in sort, some things are just fun to do.

It’s the human animal at play, and I would argue it is fundamental. It is at our evolutionary base, and at a deeper level of our existence, it is a means of self-discovery and self-creation. It is only through egocentrism that we have made the process of play competitive, and in many cases, destructive.

“What is extraordinary in this case is that we talked to engineers and chemists, writers and musicians, businesspersons and social reformers, historians and architects, sociologists and physicians — and they all agree that they do what they do primarily because it’s fun” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The ultimate meaning of life is self-creation. It is self-exploration and self-discovery, and as far as this human being is concerned, the way we achieve these things healthily is through creativity and play. Therefore work must become play.

Anything other than that eventually breeds contempt in us for our work. Play, in this sense, is not frivolous self-indulgent and aimless in a hedonistic way. Instead, it is a fully engaged state of heightened awareness and involvement. It is a state where we may become lost, a place where often the surface level self disappears.

Play can also be a less intense state of being such as when we are engaged in a social event with friends and family. In that case, we are switched off from one mode of being but also switched on to another equally valuable state.

Stuart Brown is reluctant to define Play because he says it manifests so differently for all of us. He says Play is preconscious and preverbal. It exists in the animal kingdom as it does for humans and occurs spontaneously just like sleeping or digestion. Brown says Play doesn’t require complex intellectual frameworks or preset rules; it often just happens.

No matter how we define play, it is an essential element in human creativity and expression. It is joy personified, and without it, life is a dark and lonely place.

Thanks for taking the time to read my stuff. Every morning you’ll find me sharing a new thought on life, art, work, creativity, the self and the nature of reality on The Reflectionist. I also write on The Creative Mind. If you like what I’m creating, join my email list to receive the weekly Sunday Letters

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