Excerpts from, “What Playfulness Can do for You”, by Leon Neyfakh

Ring ring ring! Banana phone!

This was a cool article I accidentally found in the Boston Globe while on family vacation last month.

Here are some parts of the article that I particularly like, starting with this:

The fact is, even the most responsible adults occasionally indulge in what can only be described as playfulness: pursuing delight in all its forms, engaging in friendly, low-stakes competition, and investing precious resources in amusing themselves and others. While it’s easy enough to say from personal experience that we do this stuff because it’s fun, scientists who specialize in the psychology of play have only recently started getting a grip on what it is that makes otherwise self-possessed, mature adults inclined toward fooling around and being silly—and what long-term benefits they get out of it.

And here’s a hint it’s much more complex than people being “childish” about their lives it’s people still treating their lives as their own.

However, a word of caution:

But wait: Before you run to the store to buy a yo-yo and a pair of roller skates in hopes of nailing your next exam or upping your romantic game, you should know that the whole endeavor of researching playfulness in adults involves a conundrum.

As British researchers Patrick Bateson and Paul Martin argue in their 2013 book, “Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation,” it’s crucial to distinguish between engaging in behavior that is technically play—battling it out in an intense game of tennis, for instance, or wasting time on an addictive iPhone game—and doing it in a way that is actually playful, which for Bateson and Martin means “cheerful, frisky, frolicsome, good-natured, joyous, merry, rollicking, spirited, sprightly [and/or] vivacious.” An important challenge facing researchers in this field is figuring out how to isolate and define playfulness as an internal state of mind rather than a mere description of how someone is acting.

Play is a fairly tough thing to nail down as some sort of internal state of mind and part of that is probably because of how diverse playfulness can be and can have us interact with ourselves and others.

Even with these complexities though the researchers interest is only recent:

Playfulness in adults did not become a significant area of research until recently—perhaps because play tends to become less central as people get older. “I think it just didn’t seem as respectable as other things, which is too bad,” said Scott Eberle, the editor of the American Journal of Play. “The grave and the serious seem more important than the way we find levity in our lives.”

One of the first researchers to break with this tradition was Mary Ann Glynn, now a professor at Boston College, who, along with her coauthor Jane Webster, published a paper in the early 1990s that described adult playfulness as “a predisposition to define and engage in activities in a nonserious or fanciful manner to increase enjoyment.” Based on a series of lab experiments and surveys, Glynn and Webster concluded that playfulness in adults was linked to “innovative attitudes” and “intrinsic motivational orientation,” meaning playful people were more likely to do things without regard for their practical purpose. The researchers also found that when study participants were asked to compose sentences using a specific set of words and told to treat the task as work, they exhibited less creativity and figurative thinking than people who were primed to approach the exact same task as play.


One of the most interesting findings Proyer has generated so far is that playful people perform better academically—a discovery he made after conducting a study on his own students over the course of a semester. “The more playful the students were, the better the grades were,” he said. (He pointed out that the course in question was extremely challenging and technical, not one where being particularly playful would confer an obvious advantage the way it would in, say, clown college.)

Another intriguing finding, reported by University of Illinois associate professor and playfulness expert Lynn A. Barnett, is that playful people are less likely to encounter stress in their lives, and that when they do, they’re better at coping with it. “People who are playful don’t run away from stress, they deal with it—they don’t do avoidance,” Barnett said.

And lastly here are some considerations of studying play and some ideas on the problems that come with it:

There is an obvious irony hanging over the entire field, and one its researchers are aware of. The minute you identify “play” as something that matters because it’s useful, it stops being play. As Anthony Pellegrini, an education psychologist and author of the 2009 book “The Role of Play in Human Development,” put it, “What play is—and this is a crucial distinction, especially when you get to adults—is an a orientation where the means are more important than the ends, where you’re much more concerned with the process than the result.” For example, a person who goes swimming during lunch every day to enjoy himself, like Pellegrini does, may be doing something playful. A swimmer in the next lane over who’s there to lose weight or train for an important race may not be.

That might make it seem self-defeating to try to become more playful: If people engage in such behavior for a pragmatic reason, it might not really be play at all. According to Barnett, this is what’s tricky about actively making use of the findings that she and others in her field have generated: “If you’re self-monitoring, that’s going to get in the way of being playful,” she said. “A lot of playfulness is spontaneity, unpredictability, just being adventurous. As soon as you employ your more rational cognitive faculties, I think you’re interfering with it.”


2 thoughts on “Excerpts from, “What Playfulness Can do for You”, by Leon Neyfakh

  1. Leisure is not just purely quantitative (discretionary time–freedom from, freedom to, time away from…) or purely qualitative (emotions, values and attitudes relating to a state of mind), but a wise combination of the two which can result in a more holistic view. When I get through this Blogging 101 I’m going to have more time to post much more in depth about this subject. Keep it up!!

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