Wanna Play? How to Be Playful – And Why It’s SO Good For You

Wanna Play? How to Be Playful. And Why It's SO Good For You

We humans are meant to play – for so many reasons. Playfulness has been associated with academic success, a greater capacity to cope with stress, innovative performance at work, and well-being – and that’s all backed by research. (Don’t you love it when science backs up what we already kind of know!) The problem is that too often we forget how to be playful. 

Recent research has added to the list of playful positives, finding that playfulness is one of the ‘must-haves’ that men and women look for when it comes to looking for a long term partner. Friendliness, intelligence and a sense of humour are also up there. 

When it comes to long term relationships, those who are laid-back, creative and easy to have fun with are more likely to set our hearts racing – or beating – or whatever it is that excited hearts do best. 

Anthropologist Garry Chick, from Pennsylvania State University has explained playfulness in an evolutionary context.  He suggests that for women, it represents low aggression and means that a potential mate would be less likely to hurt their offspring. For men, playfulness in a woman may signal her vitality and fertility. (No mention of what happens to that loved up feeling when one wipes the floor with the other at a ‘playful’ game of Scrabble – or whatever.)

Research from Zurich University found that out of a list of 16 characteristics that people tend to look for in a potential mate, women and men largely agreed on the order of importance. There were a few differences though. Women rated sense of humor higher than men did. For men, an exciting personality was more important.

For both men and women, playfulness was more important than the partner having a degree, being religious, or having good genes.

The good news is that anyone can learn to be more playful. The potential for fun is in all of us. Sometimes it might be gasping for breath beneath a pile of washing, work, stress or exhaustion – but it’s there.

So how do we get playful? Here are a few ideas:

  1. If you have a challenge on your hands, try to come at it a bit light-hearted.
  2. Try a bit of friendly, low-stakes competition.
  3. Flirt – or do anything that builds anticipation for a special day, a special night, a special surprise.
  4. Play a board game.
  5. Play a team sport.
  6. You know the things you did when you were younger to have fun? Yeah. Do them. That might be kicking a ball, painting, flying a kite, throwing on a pair of roller skates (although remember your body is a bit different to the one you were happy to bum-plant when you were 5), water fights – anything.
  7. Dance like no-one is wat- … you know how it goes.
  8. Ditto for singing.
  9. Cooking (for the fun of it, not because it’s 6pm and there are hungry mouths to feed).

Part of growing up well means not growing up completely. It means finding time to enjoy some things for the sake of having fun. Nothing that nurtures us, nourishes us, makes us laugh, lighten or connect will ever be a waste of our time. Rather, it’s quite possible one of the best uses of it.

6 Comments

Patricia Totterer

Play is the best self help! People that play seldom need therapy.
Play can accompany work, sadness, and many other challenging situations. It can be the remedy for those.
I agree with dancing! And singing….herr in the car with windows closed as I drive ..and nobody can hear 🙂

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Hey Sigmund

Hi Patricia. Play is amazing – we just have to remind ourselves how important it is sometimes. I know what you mean by singing in the car with the windows up – such great therapy isn’t it!

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Anita Cleare

I love these tips, thank you. I am absolutely rubbish at playing with my children – I find it so hard to let go of the rational and give in to imagination (No, that’s a dinosaur, it can’t go in the farm!!). But dancing…. now that’s something I am great at committing to 100%!

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Turenne

Through play, we grow… Through play, is the best way we genuinely integrate and learn positively. Play is just the most pleasant and natural way of doing, being and evolving… How do we ever come to forget? Don’t we go backwards when we don’t play anymore? Don’t we go away from our essence… our divine essence?

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Anxiety has a way of demanding ALL of the attention. It shifts the focus to what feels scary, or too big, or impossible, or what needs to be avoided, or what feels bad, or what our kiddos can’t do. As the grown ups who love them, we know they are capable of greatness, even if that greatness is made up of lots of tiny steps, (as great things tend to be).
Physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response (which is where the physical feelings of an anxiety attack come from). Walking will help to burn the adrenalin and neurochemicals that have surged the body to prepare it for flight or fight, and which are causing the physical symptoms (racy heart, feeling sick, sweaty, short breaths, dry mouth, trembly or tense in the limbs etc). As well as this, the rhythm of walking will help to calm their anxious amygdala. Brains love rhythm, and walking is a way to give them this. 
⠀⠀
Try to help your young one access their steady breaths while walking, but it is very likely that they will only be able to do this if they’ve practised outside of an anxiety attack. During anxiety, the brain is too busy to try anything unfamiliar. Practising will help to create neural pathways that will make breathing an easier, more accessible response during anxiety. If they aren't able to access strong steady breaths, you might need to do it for them. This will be just as powerful - in the same way they can catch your anxiety, they will also be able to catch your calm. When you are able to assume a strong, calm, steady presence, this will clear the way for your brave ones to do the same.
The more your young one is able to verbalise what their anxiety feels like, the more capacity they will have to identify it, acknowledge it and act more deliberately in response to it. With this level of self-awareness comes an increased ability to manage the feeling when it happens, and less likelihood that the anxiety will hijack their behaviour. 

Now - let’s give their awareness some muscle. If they are experts at what their anxiety feels like, they are also experts at what it takes to be brave. They’ve felt anxiety and they’ve moved through it, maybe not every time - none of us do it every time - maybe not even most times, but enough times to know what it takes and how it feels when they do. Maybe it was that time they walked into school when everything in them was wanting to walk away. Maybe that time they went in for goal, or down the water slide, or did the presentation in front of the class. Maybe that time they spoke their own order at the restaurant, or did the driving test, or told you there would be alcohol at the party. Those times matter, because they show them they can move through anxiety towards brave. They might also taken for granted by your young one, or written off as not counting as brave - but they do count. They count for everything. They are evidence that they can do hard things, even when those things feel bigger than them. 

So let’s expand those times with them and for them. Let’s expand the wisdom that comes with that, and bring their brave into the light as well. ‘What helped you do that?’ ‘What was it like when you did?’ ‘I know everything in you wanted to walk away, but you didn’t. Being brave isn’t about doing things easily. It’s about doing those hard things even when they feel bigger than us. I see you doing that all the time. It doesn’t matter that you don’t do them every time -none of us are brave every time- but you have so much courage in you my love, even when anxiety is making you feel otherwise.’

Let them also know that you feel like this too sometimes. It will help them see that anxiety happens to all of us, and that even though it tells a deficiency story, it is just a story and one they can change the ending of.
During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
.
But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
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We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
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Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.

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