Many people are good at identifying play when they see it - kids on a playground laughing and moving or puppies wrestling with each other - but most adults struggle to understand the importance of play and how it is very different than “work”.
Todd Hargrove does a great job in his book playing with movement outlining ways that play is different than work which can help us create a clearer picture when defining play:Play is intrinsically motivating. Put simply, playful activities are done for their intrinsic pleasure and not for an external reward or ulterior purpose. We do them because the act of playing in itself is rewarding.
Experts on animal behaviour consider an activity to be play if it doesn’t serve a survival or reproductive purpose. Play is also not about doing things that are silly, immature, or trivial - it’s about getting fully absorbed in an activity that is intrinsically motivating. It is an end to itself and not a means to an end.
The opposite side of the spectrum from play is work/drudgery - activities that we dislike doing, that require willpower and conscious control to complete which typically hold an extrinsic benefit (many times this is money or physical appearance). Play involves minimal stress. In the natural world, play never compromises recovery or movement health. Animals or babies that arent feeling well or are under stress will typically stop playing. Adults might love to run, do CrossFit or lift weights but when they are done through pain this should be considered work and no longer resembles play.
Play is exploratory. When a baby is playing there are no directions or guidelines telling them what to do and it inherently involves creative exploration. Exploring movement without a strictly defined goal allows for trial and error without constraints and the exploration itself if enjoyable instead of simply being a means to an end.
Play is creative. In a world where fitness has become a regimented, programmed activity, we have lost the creative element in our movement. Play is creative and unstructured. It provides the freedom to move in novel ways to solve a problem or to react to a partner. Play removes the pressures of needing to obtain a goal and in doing this can unleash new patterns of activation in the brain that enhance creativity.
Play is tinkering. Tinkering means trying to solve a problem through trial and error by fiddling around with variables in a semi-random manner. This contrasts to a work strategy that relies on precise planning and by its nature will limit creativity. We often apply a tinkering mindset when it comes to pain. If your back hurts when deadlifting, you will sometimes (even subconsciously) play around slightly with your posture or technique until you find one that eliminates the pain or feels more efficient. The modern-day fitness instructor yelling out precise cues on exactly how you must move had disempowered the individual to tinker and be creative with their movement.
Play involves risk. Play is often used to explore limits and because of this, it involves a certain amount of risk. Whether its puppies wrestling or a child figuring out how fast they can run, learning where lines are by crossing them can sometimes result in injury but this is a necessary element for improvement. Injury is the way we learn our limits and for kids, the memory of injury is what then informs the level of risk they are willing to accept in the future.
Fear is the enemy of movement freedom and by participating in play that involves risk, we learn to master fear and gain confidence in movement after successfully handling a risky situation. This sense of self-efficacy is protective against chronic pain and disability and is something many people today are missing by forgetting how to play and tinkering with their body at varying levels of risk. Exposing yourself to regular doses of risky situations can create immunity against the disease of anxiety. With parents today not giving children the freedom to explore risk by climbing trees, going out on their own with friends or disproving of rough-housing, this could be a reason that kids today are more fragile, sensitive and anxious than the children of the past.