I’ve been reading a lot about play lately.
No books I really want to recommend. Most research and writing about play seems to be surprisingly dour and joyless! But everything I’ve read agrees that play is essential, for humans and animals alike. It’s how we develop, as children. But we don’t stop needing this as adults.
Play is how we learn.
A study of engineers in tech companies found that people who as children played using their hands – building and making things, taking things apart to see how they worked – were by far the better problem-solvers as adults, the most creative thinkers.
In adulthood, play continues to teach us, to fire new pathways in our ever-malleable brain. But only if we allow ourselves to do it.
Play is how we relax.
We all need an activity that absorbs us completely, but that is completely unrelated to work. This helps us unwind far more than passively slumping in front of a screen.
It also allows our subconscious to take a quiet wander around work problems, and come up with innovative solutions. This is why so many of us get our best ideas in the shower after a workout, or towards the end of a relaxing holiday.
Play encourages curiosity.
And curiosity is a superpower for creatives. It all starts with questions like “What if…?” With joining the dots, and connecting concepts that weren’t previously connected to make something new. Or with noticing something few have noticed before.
As the prolific SF writer Isaac Asimov once said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ Instead, it is ‘That’s funny…’ ”
And play is fun!
Which is what life should be all about, no? We’ve got things skewed since industrialisation, thinking a nation’s success should be measured by GDP, by the growth of the economy rather than the happiness of humans and the health of the environment.
We’ve started to live to work rather than working to live. And we need to change that.
Self-employed creatives have more control over our time than most, so we need to lead the way on this. Play can be a radical act of resistance, a way of reclaiming joy and connection for everyone. So give yourself a break!
What is play, exactly?
It’s sad that we need to ask this question, but most of us have been trained to see any activity that isn’t immediately productive as time wasted.
We see play as frivolous, unserious. And it’s been so long since many of us have done it well, that we might need reminding what it is.
- Play is purposeless, done for its own sake. It doesn’t need to be useful, productive or improving. It just needs to make you happy.
- You play because you want to, because you’re drawn to it.
- When you’re absorbed in play, you get into a flow state.
- Time flies, or seems to stop completely. You are fully in the present moment.
- The distracting, nagging voices in your mind seem to quieten.
- There’s the potential to improvise, to make it up as you go along.
- You can’t wait to do it again.
Play is different for all of us
There’s no right or wrong way to play. Going for a run can be a grim chore for one person, but joyful play for another. Dancing in the middle of a crowd in a sweaty, dark room is heaven for some, hell for others.
It’s about exploring, experimenting, finding what lights you up. Then doing it, regularly.
- What did you love doing as a child? What got you excited?
- Were they things you did alone, or with others? Were they physical, or mental?
- Try to get in touch with how it felt, to be at peak play. The sensations in your body, the emotions. How might you be able to feel that now, as an adult?
- When did you last feel free to do and be what you choose?
- Is that a part of your life now? If not, why not?
- What pleasures are you delaying until the decks are cleared/you’ve earned or deserve it more?
- What gets in the way of you taking regular time to play?
- Is there anything you do now that feels effortless and easy?
- What feels joyful?
- How could you bring playfulness back into your work or home life?
- Is there anything you hate doing – chores, specific work tasks – that you could turn into more of a game?
Play dates for creativity and connection
If you’ve never done this, it might feel impossibly indulgent. Julia Cameron popularised the idea, in her brilliant book for creative recovery, The Artist’s Way. She calls them artist dates, and encourages you to take at least an hour, every week, to do something that feeds your soul or just feels like it might be fun.
What I found, when suggesting my coaching clients go on artist dates, was that they tended to choose activities that were cultural and Good For You. They went to life-drawing classes and to art galleries, to classical concerts and philosophical lectures.
All of which is absolutely fine, but so is going to the circus or the funfair, rollerskating or trampolining, rummaging round vintage or charity shops, lying in a hammock watching the clouds go by, or going to a cosy cafe with a book you want to read. That’s why I started calling them play dates instead.
Play dates don’t have to be productive, or improving. You don’t need to earn or deserve them. And you certainly shouldn’t wait until you’ve finished your work or got on top of your to-do list to begin. They’re just about doing something you enjoy or that you fancy trying, for no real aim or reason except that you want to.
Recipe for a play date
Ideally, you take at least an hour. A few hours or a whole day would be even better. Get into the habit of finding spaces in your schedule. Got a meeting in town? Go a couple of hours early, and plan a date. Got 90 minutes between dropping your child off at an activity and picking them up again? Take that time for yourself, not for chores.
Ideally, your date should be planned in advance every week, so that you start noticing or looking for things to try. And it should also be taken alone, so you’re not worrying about what others think, whether they’re enjoying it, or putting their needs first.
But we won’t always get the perfect conditions, and taking even 15 minutes for yourself or planning to do something with a friend is better than not doing it at all.
Why we don’t take play dates
In general, when I challenge clients to go on a date, men are better than women at making the time; parents struggle more than non-parents. Almost everyone feels uncomfortable with it at first, unproductive or selfish.
My clients also happen to be creatives, so some of the excuses are brilliantly inventive. But in the end, they’re often variations on these themes:
- I don’t have the time; I have too much to do.
- I feel guilty.
- What is someone sees me and thinks I’m shirking? People already think being an artist/writer/musician/designer isn’t a proper job.
- I’m not earning enough. I can’t afford it right now.
- There’s looming deadline. Or ten.
- I can’t think of anything I really want to do.
- I’ll do it once this project is finished/ the house is tidy/ the chores are ticked off/ the accounts are up-to-date/ I’ve just done this one more thing.
And why we should do it anyway
At first it feels pointless, a colossal waste of time. Especially when we’re all so frantically busy. But after a couple of months of consistent play dates, magic happens.
People report feeling calmer, more creative, perhaps even less frantically busy. Ideas start flowing. Work challenges that once felt like major dramas become something you can laugh at, resolve more playfully.
You start to see what’s really important, and what is busywork. You stop scrolling and playing pointless games on your phone, and actually start enjoying your time off. You’re happier, you sleep better.
You work smarter, not harder. Which also tends to bring more money in.
Now here’s the wu-wu bit. The weirdness.
Most people also start experiencing strange coincidences. Wandering round a second-hand bookshop with no real aim in mind, they spot the perfect resource for an upcoming project. At a boot sale, there’s the fabric they need to pull an interior scheme together. Walking home from a tai chi class, they bump into someone they’d wanted to contact. In a cafe, they overhear a phrase that’s just perfect for the character they’re writing.
I can’t really explain this. I just know that it happens, again and again. And that you’re far more likely to experience this kind of luck or serendipity if you’re out and about, if you’ve remembered how to be open and curious, than when you’re working 24/7.
Can’t think what to do on a date?
Here are 100 ideas for play dates. If you have a favourite activity you’d like to share in that list, do let me know in the comments.