Play Is the Lubricant of Life
Beware when life doesn't feel like play.
Posted March 16, 2020
As a therapist, educator, and artist, I know the importance of play. Although I did not grow up playful, I dedicated the last 20 years to the study of play. Play soothes interactions, allows for hard conversations, deepens relationships, and makes challenges and lows more bearable.
And so, let's clarify what play is.
Game and/or Play
Game is an activity with a set of rules and boundaries: what is allowed and what is not, who is the winner and losers, consequences, rules, and so on. When we think of games we think of chess, monopoly, football, and more. But also your mortgage, your job, your career, parenting, and marriage are in fact one big, long game with great consequences.
Play, on the other hand, is a state of mind, a state of being. There is no point or goal to play. Play is an important psychodynamic concept connected to the mental and psychological development of the child. Infants are born with minds that are attuned to the minds and behaviors of others, and learn through mirroring and play.
I would add that play necessitates imagination, lightness, and not taking yourself, the other, or the world too seriously.
You can play a game without play and you can play without being in a game. But when you play within the game, you might experience greater moments of freedom, vitality, and joy.
So why don’t people play more in their life? Because sometimes play can be perceived as socially dangerous.
Risks of Play
- Ridicule. People won’t take you seriously.
- Loss of status. You might not be perceived as an authority.
- Loss of confidence. You might dare to be more open and curious.
- More risk. Since play requires you to soften your control, life might become unexpected, surprising, even startling.
Compare these to the following possible gains of play:
Gains of Play
- Freedom to bring different parts of yourself to your work and your relationships.
- Collaboration. You don’t have to know everything, so you can ask others.
- Support. You can lean on others.
- Vitality. Being in play connects you to your potential state, which is the space between reality and fantasy, where love, hope, creativity, and wonder reside.
- Curiosity and surprise. Since you are softening your perception of reality, you will start noticing new data, synchronicity, and other surprises you don’t usually notice. You are open to the unexpected – you add questions marks where there were once exclamation points in your life.
- You become more forgiving. To yourself for not being perfect, for others who are doing their best.
- You become lighter and more positive. With play, like a spoonful of sugar, life goes down easier. There is less dramatic heaviness.
- You become more likable. Because you are more playful and positive, less cynical and pessimistic.
In short, the game of life is softer, easier, more bearable and fun with play.
A Short Example of Play
Recently, I was at the coffee shop with my son and ordered him an ice chocolate, and they asked for our name so they could announce it on the speaker when the drink will be ready. My son’s name is Tzach. Since I was in a silly mood I answered “king Tzach.” The barman looked up at me puzzled. He asked again, I playfully answered “my son Tzach is a king!” The worker paused and then smiled. For that short moment, that worker softened his perception of work reality and entertained the thought of my son being a king. A few minutes later, he announced on the speaker “King Tzach.”
And for that one moment, whoever heard that announcement, including that barman, my son and myself, smiled. For that moment, our perception of reality softened.
So how do we become more playful?
Even though we all started out as kids with high ability for play, many of us find it harder to play because we are too deep in the game of life. Here are some tips that might help you become more playful:
- Stop taking yourself or life too seriously. They are both going to end soon. So would you rather spend your life happier and more playful or more serious?
- Practice silliness. From time to time, do something a bit silly, whimsical, or funny. Start with small things when you are alone.
- Share this article with someone you want to be more playful with.
- Expect resistance. Your partner might not be used to you being playful and might use the holy trinity of blocking (surprise, insult, or disappointment) to get you back to your old “serious” self.
- Hold on to yourself and stay open. Commitment to play is indeed “serious work” because it requires you to have an open heart, accept influence and the ability to let things land.
- Model play for your children and loved ones. Have play be the goal, the standard of your daily life. Model to your kids that play is not just for kids but a worthy form of being.
If you succeed in reclaiming play as an adult, you will notice how your personal and professional life will become more fun, flowing, and collaborative.
In the beginning, it might be strange or even difficult. But over time, play will become the new standard, and play will become the new lifestyle.
Altman, N., Briggs, R., Frankel, J., Gensler, D. & Pantone, P. (2002). Relational Child Psychotherapy. New York, NY: Other Press.
Nachmanovitch, S. (1990). Free play: Improvisation in life and art. New York, NY: Tarcher.
Stern, D. N. (2004b). The present moment in psychotherapy and everyday life. New York, NY: Norton.
Winnicott, D. W. (1971). Playing and reality. New York, NY: Basic Books.