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The Greek philosophers rained praise on play, hailing leisure time as the foundation of ‘the good life’. More recently, Professor Jonathan Gershuny, Oxford University’s time-use expert, found that some of the greatest innovations, art, philosophy and discoveries were formed during play.

Some of the greatest innovations, art, philosophy and discoveries were formed during play

What is play?

Play can broadly be defined as any purposeless, all-consuming, voluntary and fun activity, where you are focused on the process rather than the end result. It is a state of mind. An attitude of curiosity and wonder.

That all sounds lovely, but isn’t it just for kids?

Certainly not. Play continues to have a dramatic and positive impact throughout our lives. As adults, play creates rich, new neural connections that fire together in new ways building more creative, productive and innovative minds, which in turn creates more creative, productive and innovative people and societies. Play is also your gray matter’s favourite way of learning and as integral to our biological well-being as sleep or nutrition.

Unfortunately, over 15 centuries, the Greek wisdom has gradually lost favour and work has become the golden beacon. Almost like a religion, work offers a sense of identity and purpose. Sharp elbows are bared as everyone flocks to join the Cult of Busy.

Taking play seriously

Dr. Stuart Brown, neuroscientist and founder of the National Institute for Play, is bringing play back in a big way. His first scientific look at play came in 1966, when Charles Whitman climbed the campus tower at the University of Texas carrying a Remington 700 rifle, took aim, wounded 31 and killed 15. It was later revealed that he had also murdered his wife and mother. As Brown delved deep into Whitman’s history, speaking to teachers, the local priest and uncovering a childhood lived under the abusive, relentless, domineering hand of his father, it became clear that Whitman had never played. The free, creative acts that encourage children to think differently, take risks, discover and learn social nuances simply did not happen. This absence of play had a significant impact on his ability to be flexible and deal with stress without resorting to violence. Since studying Whitman, Brown has taken over 6,000 ‘play histories’ and repeatedly found that those who do not play are often joyless workaholics and, at their core, depressed.

As adults, play creates rich, new neural connections that fire together in new waysClick To Tweet

It’s tough to make time for play when we’re busy being adults, but it’s clearly important. Here are five ways to fit play into the day-to-day.

  • Give yourself permission to play and revisit activities you enjoyed as a kid. Whether it was a game of conkers, kicking a ball about, Lego or drawing, set aside a minimum of 30 minutes each week for pure, purposeless fun

    Revisit activities you enjoyed as a kid

  • Play with your food. Cutting toast into whimsical shapes is my personal favourite
  • Turn the dreaded commute into a game. How many yellow jumpers can you spot? What super powers might the guy sitting next to you possess?
  • Why walk everywhere? I’m not suggesting you skip into your next meeting, but [where appropriate] try the crab, penguin and kangaroo next time you need to get from A to B
  • In the UK, The School of Play is taking the lead in helping our cerebellums be even more awesome through lifelong play. Explore your playful side at their next event: Night At The Masquerade, 7pm on Wednesday 23 November, North London. Tickets available here
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The Greek philosophers rained praise on play, hailing leisure time as the foundation of ‘the good life’. More recently, Professor Jonathan Gershuny, Oxford University’s time-use expert, found that some of the greatest innovations, art, philosophy and discoveries were formed during play. What is play? Play can broadly be defined as any...
Flick Hardingham
Flick shares our (rather unhealthy) obsession with lateral minds and has just launched JOiN THE DOT, helping companies kickstart creative thinking and drive innovation through action-packed, Lego charged workshops. She crafted her wild mind and disciplined eye in the dark depths of media land, wrapped her head around interactive learning theory as a teacher and mastered the agile mindset consulting London’s nimblest start-ups. Follow her adventures on the wondrous electric internet @chasingdots.