Play in your life: Getting in touch with your own playful nature

This section was crafted and curated by Project Team member Jay, an aspiring corporate anthropologist, investment ecologist, and data psycho-analyst.

If play is what we say it is, it's not enough for it to exist on these pages.

Play needs to be accessible — to you, to me, to all of us. This isn't the part where we give you a pitch for a 6-month Learn-to-Play program (though those certainly do exist! We’d selfishly recommend starting with RADAR member Sam Furness’s Creative Quests, or the clowning workshops, spellcrafting courses, and playful innovation sessions hosted by three of our brilliant expert contributors). 

As we've mentioned before, we feel pretty strongly that research isn't something that should stay on the shelf. So, what do we do about play? How does this mysterious force become something tangible, practical, and livable?

Well, as with play, there’s not one way or one right answer; it will be different for each and every person. The best we can do is ask you to join us in this process of learning and discovery — and give you a few ways, and tools, to think about it. Your process may begin one way and end another; it depends on what it is you’re seeking. After all, play can be one of the best ways to learn about ourselves.

So, since futures are our thing, here are a few possible futures for this report: 

  1. Book: Something you return to, to hear stories of what play is or could be.
  2. Museum: A place for inspiration, encouraging you to curate your own collection of playful artifacts.
  3. Map: A starting point, or a wayfinder, to begin your own playful learning journey with some of the initial headings filled out.
  4. Portal: A spark to action, that encourages you to make a change, to try something new, to turn to play as a portal to your own visions of a better future.

No matter which future this report holds for you, we wanted to leave you with a few more practical ways to act on your play impulse. Think about it as one part infrastructure, one part inspiration. In a fantasy world, there would be a Disney World for Play we could all visit, something between this Primary School Energy Game and the magical playground of Simon Sinek's Together is Better. But maybe starting in our own lives is not so bad? Like any great artist, the work is to learn how to use what is in our hands to build the world we feel compelled to bring to life.

So, to start, how do you know it's play and that it's working? First, you should know that there aren't many wrong ways to play. There are certainly less playful ways to play, but as with anything you get good at doing, it becomes more complex over time.

One useful resource is Scott Eberle's paper The Elements of Play — it's referenced by both Dr. Stuart Brown and Imwen Eke. Not only is it easy to read, but, if you like, you can just look at the pictures! In this paper, Eberle has different 'stages' of play that map to feelings or experiences. There's also a spiral diagram to show what it might look like when play crosses the line into what isn't play. Perhaps we can think of this like a game of swingball. When we play, it's not always exactly spot on, but with each attempt at play the ball will come back around so that we can take another shot.

The other trick is to think about it as much as a feeling as an activity. Play is immersive; it’s part of what makes it such a valuable tool to treat trauma. So while the chronic stress, dissociative malaise, and even the sacred rage that are staple states of our toxic culture may feel scary — if not impossible — to leave behind, play is a vehicle to let ourselves experience joy, whatever that looks and feels like for you. 

How does play become your own? Yuri Scharp and Arnold Bakker are professors at the Erasmus Unversiteit Rotterdam in the Netherlands who, amongst other topics, study play at work

Along with Australian researcher Claire Petelczyc, Scharp and Bakker are the key voices in the discourse emerging in this space — covering everything from play’s role as a refuge and a bonding tool to a vehicle for work itself. Having synthesized decades of esoteric papers and broad research, they land on three paradigms for play:

  1. Play as a set of activities or behaviors
  2. Play as an individual characteristic
  3. Play as a behavioral approach to an activity

These are all valid ways of approaching play, but you'll find that the paradigm we've focused on in this report is the behavioral approach. You might feel drawn to our definition or another — and that's probably a good thing! To remain playful is to remain fluid.

Play has been studied as a primal emotional system, as a tool for childhood development, and as something that happens within the container of a game. The point is, play is everywhere. There are many perspectives and no need to feel boxed into one particular approach.

What is play becomes what is play to you. How to play becomes what kind of play makes you feel alive.

Hopefully the activities and material in this report will give you a head start, but if there's one thing play researchers can agree on when it comes to play, it's that play is fundamentally ambiguous and difficult to define. This doesn't mean there are no definitions; it means that it's complex, and to become comfortable with play is to become comfortable with the "Yes, And!"

If there are commandments for play, they are that play does not command, except for when it does; and when it does, it's always open to receiving new commands.

“Play can be: free or fixed and codified; active or passive; vicarious or engaging; solitary or social.” — Scott Eberle, Elements of Play

You May Go Gently: The inner landscape shaped by play is fundamentally ecological. It is the sum of all your parts: past, present, and future. We wouldn't expect change to happen in a linear manner, but rather through something you could think of as deep laziness.

Perhaps this means instead of setting 10 different alarms to remember to play, you could think about it as a detective looking for traces of play in the world around you. Maybe for you, having a small, dedicated piece of your time set aside for a pottery class or social volleyball is a way to invite play back into your life. But maybe that sounds like a chore and feels inaccessible, in which case setting daily reminders to check in about how you're feeling is an easier starting point. If all you can do when you get home is turn on Netflix, maybe starting looks like watching a few more comedies or stand-up specials. The magic of play is that it's often a lot easier to start with than a meditation practice — at least, if you have the temperament and focus of a child!

The first step is simply to learn to pay attention to how you're feeling and how you react to the world around you: the attentive bird catches the jokes. At first this might mean being aware of how bad things feel — if this is safe to do, it's worth it! If you feel guilty for playing 20 minutes of Candy Crush as your only way to play, don't let the Protestant Work Ethic get you down. But if it gets to the point where it's no longer fun and rather a compulsion, maybe rethink this habit. Remember to "let the soft animal of your body love what it loves." (Thanks, Mary Oliver.) If you're ready to step it up, try to design for Flowin your work, in the chores you do at home, with your hobbies, in dating, in civic life, even in your memes.

Pat Ogden, an embodiment elder, has some profound notes on play in Play, Creativity, and Movement Vocabulary: Ogden suggests that to be playful is to challenge habitual responses, which means that making a habit out of play might prove really difficult! She suggests that, "We must relinquish what we know as we go outside our comfort zone to teeter on the end of our windows of tolerance, where uncertainty reigns."

It makes sense that we move in hardened and habitual ways of which we’re not always cognizant. Ogden suggests that "movement habits reflect predictions about what is to come based on repeated experiences of the past." If the world we live in is one of scarcity, of lack, of danger, it might not feel safe to play, but it might also be exactly why play is so important.

Like T. S. Eliot says: "For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business"

The danger of chasing 'play' without a deep belief that play is personal, and that we all have our own ways of enjoying the life we live, is that we keep looking for something that's never there. Because it's been here all along, inside of us — like Clara in the Nutcracker who discovers *she* is the Sugar Plum Fairy she’s been looking for the whole time.

Play is not like that game, Operation, where you must lower the item into the body without setting off the buzzer. It’s more like great music with a set of dials, and an invitation for you to become your own Play DJ. Find tracks you like, remix them, interpolate them, play them at the same time! If it's not hitting, figure out how to work the dials so that it does:

  • Need more structure? Or do you want no rules at all?
  • Need more social play? Or do you prefer it parallel?
  • Want to play in your imagination? Or do you want to work with your hands?

Whoever you are, play isn't something for you — it's a part of you and it always has been. This means that you have the freedom to explore and make play out of your life in whatever way best suits you. And when you do, please come back and tell us about it so that we can learn from you, too! 

Practically, what can I try next?

  • Join us on the Miro Playground where we explore on our own time and make little corners and treehouses to share with others.
  • Join the PLAYdar Reading Group on to read with others, see what resonated with readers around the world, and follow each other across the reaches of the internet.
  • Boredom abhors a vacuum, but it's also the dark shadowy space where play can mushroom into being. The experience of enjoyment is more than pleasure, it's immersive and requires attentiveness. A bit of space and attention paid to something in particular could be your starting place!
  • Games can also be a nice entry point. It's easier to return to familiar spaces, so if there are games you played with friends or family members, that could be something to try. Your author’s faves are Backgammon with mom and Wingspan with friends, but more recos from RADAR include traditional favorites like Uno, Catan, and Mario Kart and DIY verbal fun like Would You Rather and ✨ Imagination Conversations ✨. (Note: Games are not in and of themselves, play. However, games can act like a portal that creates the conditions for play by encouraging you to perform a ritual that opens the door to the feeling of play. If games aren’t fun for you and your family (perhaps they turn into shouting matches where game boards get thrown across the room?), try something else!)
  • Join a local group or try something new! Take it easy though, and remember that the point is to let yourself enjoy what you're doing, not be the best or feel bad for not getting it right the first time (Things that were way more fun than your author expected: Coffee cupping, belly dancing, group meditation, and NaNoWriMo with friend; RADAR says the same of: Growing your own food, exploring solopreneurialism, and just…sitting in new places!)
  • Or, if you like, go back through the report and find the easter eggs! Try it the playful way! Have a go at the activity worksheets (which we’ve compiled into a handy little book right here)!

To print & play, download a PDF here