How to Play as an Adult
Sociodramatic play is healing for every age.
Posted December 13, 2020 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
Examining your childhood experiences with play can help unpack resistance you might have toward playing (see prior post for other issues that get in the way). Play breaks down when people become self-conscious about making mistakes, start to compete or compare, become hostile, seek power, or start justifying actions. People who are addicted to praise feel insecure without praise and fearing blame (opposite of praise).
To move toward adult play, recall your childhood experiences of play. Did you play imaginatively with toys, with peers or adults? Were you able to sing, dance, draw without concern for “correctness”? What talents/skills/handicaps or other qualities helped or hindered your social play? Are there traumatic events in childhood that still reverberate. What kinds of jokes did you like? How often did you laugh? What groups help or hurt your spontaneity?
Adam and Allee Blatner (1997) describe the benefit of imaginative pretend play, playing roles, as therapy to help individuals heal their broken sense of relational vitality. But they also describe the power of dramatic play for everyone as a prevention of mental illness.
One of the greatest benefits of dramatic play is the opportunity to shift attention and viewpoints as participants take on and then shift roles. It teaches participants that roles can be “assumed, modified, refined, elaborated, and relinquished” and that “we are free to create them, renegotiate them with others, or let some parts of them drop away” (Blatner & Blatner, 1997, p. 14). Play prepares players for responsibilities in life. Overall, play is artful in that it brings forth creativity among participants.
Dramatic play is learned by doing it, but you likely have deep memories of spontaneous play from childhood. For adults, it “requires a realignment of your mental orientation and this may challenge old habits” (Blatner & Blatner, 1997, p. xix). Players will increase in spontaneity with practice.
A primary adult habit that thwarts play is self-control, “acting mature.” From a young age they were told not to act like children. So a host of inhibitions can accumulate and burden the psyche of the adult.
“Truly to cleanse the psyche of the accumulated, unclear, inhibited feelings generated in the course of everyday life, people need the opportunity to personally enact their won expressions of events and characters in a sociodramatic or psychodramatic setting that creates the means and context for catharsis.
“Whether the emotions be enacted as they really happened, as in psychodrama, or in a more distanced, symbolic, sublimated form, as in creative dramatic play, there is not only an expression of emotion, but also the additional benefit of validation of the feelings by other people. Furthermore, being in a group with others who are portraying their own chosen scenes provides a vicarious and shared experience. By stimulating each other to play more vigorously and spontaneously, the group process also demonstrates the commonalities of the human condition, and thus counteracts the sense of emotional isolation and “being different.” (Blatner & Blatner, 1997, p. 21)
Spontaneity is not the same as impulsivity because spontaneity involves intention—for social connection or artistic effect. Spontaneity is the opposite of stereotyping, compulsiveness, or habit. It’s focused on the present moment and building rewarding experiences with others.
All sorts of skills grow through play: social perception, empathy, creativity, flexibility, belly laughter, humility, sense of humor, initiative, moving on from mistakes, listening, honesty, inclusiveness, problem-solving. Sociodramatic play offers a channel for increasing self-discovery and vitality.
“Play also establishes a context in which otherwise socially unacceptable behaviors are tolerated, if not actually enjoyed. Being silly, crude, seductive, babyish, bossy, mocking of authorities, going beyond the boundaries of propriety –all are common behaviors in the course of sociodramatic enactment. Thus, this realm of surplus reality offers people a relatively fail-safe context for self-expression.” (Blatner & Blatner, 1997, p. 15)
If you have guilty feelings about having too much fun, that’s a cultural meme emerging from the Puritanical work ethic and the view that pleasure means debauchery. Certainly, there are maladaptive forms of enjoyment that are rooted in feelings of oppression, anger, rebellion or even worthlessness. In fact, those who have suppressed play impulses may act out in self-harming or other-harming ways. Sometimes adults who have not played much do not recognize play impulses in children and suppress or punish them, creating the repression described in the previous post.
The Blatners call their approach to dramatic role-play, role dynamics, which integrates developmental, humanistic, existential, social, transpersonal, and analytic psychologies.
Phenomena vital to the approach are experiencing playfulness, excitement, delight, and celebration. Not only does such play increase creativity and flexibility but also connection to others.
Adult Play Groups
The Blatners describe adult play groups, whose characteristics they have honed over years of experience. A well-functioning group:
- Lets participants create characters spontaneously
- Has enough time for all to get involved and then wind down (two to three hours)
- Avoids judgment, competitiveness, or psychologizing
- Is small (no more than nine members)
- Provides a supportive context
- Has a facilitator
The group begins with exercises such as each person imagining a historical figure, occupation, or animal (etc.) and their characteristics. Each person describes their character briefly (“I am…; I’m feeling…”). They can pass until something comes to mind. then the group breaks into pairs to help sharpen the character through questioning (e.g., how old, what they like/dislike). The group selects which character to make the central focus around which others shift to roles that support the scenario or become active audience members. So for example, a scenario that groups have selected include a group of spacemen landing on a strange planet; a monster, destroying and devouring a city; one of Santa’s uncooperative elves; a child having a perfect birthday.
Style can also be chosen, such as “hamming it up” or straight. During the playing, just as in children’s play, the players talk to each other about how to do things (e.g., “you go over there”).
Other Ways to Play
In my experience, the easiest way to learn to play again as an adult if you don’t have a play group, is having a playmate with whom you:
- Go sledding
- Play charades (less competition is better)
- Dance creatively
- Play chase
When I was a music teacher, I used the Education Through Music (from the Richards Institute) approach which involves folk song games (think “London Bridge is Falling Down”). When I taught adults and also college students, I used folk song games to develop play skills, group bonding, and to prepare them for playing with children. The next post will discuss attachment play with children.
More on sociodramatic play here.
Blatner, A., & Blatner, A. (1997). The art of play: helping adults reclaim imagination and spontaneity. New York: Brunner/Mazel.