The forgotten art of play and the new science of positivity

The attitude that carries us through the activity, a playful attitude, turns the activity into play.
We are not fixed in particular constructions of ourselves, which is part of saying that we are open to self-construction.
We are not wedded to a particular way of doing things.
Playfulness is, in part, an openness to being a fool, which is a combination of not worrying about competence, not being self-important, not taking norms as sacred and finding ambiguity and double edges a source of wisdom and delight. 

— María Lugones, educator & philosopher

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A dear former colleague recently updated me on the results of her school-based intervention (and they will be presenting at an Australian conference! Congratulations!). She and a coworker utilised LEGO® Therapy with some success for a small group of autistic students, reminding me how clinical work can be enriching and fulfilling not just for clients, but also for therapists were we to inject play into sessions. Many adults often forget to play, myself included. It was a young 9-year-old client who helped me remember this aphorism one day when she humphed in session, “I am just a kid; I want to play.” We then proceeded to play hide-and-seek inside our imaginary Egyptian pyramid.

Play can be incorporated into a myriad of therapeutic activities. I collaborate with parents in family sessions to transform behaviour charts into games, which not only ups the fun factor for all members of the family, it encourages the child’s compliance with the chart since it is now less a rule, more a mission. In reality, a fair number of parents find it difficult to be more creative with their parenting practices. The above quote by Lugones on playfulness keenly identifies one reason why this is so. Sometimes, adults are afraid of making fools of themselves and being silly in front of their children. Besides this, admittedly it can be mentally tedious trying to figure out how to turn parenting into a game than to retain it as a style of discipline.

However, beautiful interactions transpire where parents do engage in playful interactions with their children. Tough fathers become vulnerable in front of their daughters and mothers translate nagging into thoughtful Socratic questioning.

On the education front, Nordic school systems have been harnessing the power of play for decades to improve learning outcomes. Knowing that student attentiveness increases following a break and drops off as the break onset gets delayed, in Finland, 15 minute breaks are given per hour of class. Research outcomes demonstrating that free play during frequent breaks both rejuvenates students for the rest of the school day, as well as promotes acquisition and practice of core social skills, have inspired play and outdoor education to be woven into curriculum. Next door in Sweden, a $60 million budget was set aside in 2016 to enhance schoolyards for nature-based outdoor learning, and the United Kingdom too has adopted some practices from the Scandinavian and Finnish model. The benefits are twofold; spending just 30 minutes a week amidst nature is protective against depression.

Integrating play and playfulness into our exchanges with children means a shift to becoming more child-focused. What may the relevance of play be for us, as adults? The importance of play, in general, has been elucidated by the burgeoning field of positive psychology.

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Play increases our levels of positive emotions, which leads to numerous health and well-being benefits.

Psychologist Barbara L. Fredrickson is most renowned for her “broaden-and-build” theory of positive emotions. The impact of positive emotions on us is considerably more subtle than that of negative emotions (e.g., disgust leads us to immediately spit out spoiled food) and for a long time researchers had not thought much of the adaptive role of positive emotions in human evolution and survival. However, as Fredrickson and Losada (2005) identified, “although positive affect is transient, the personal resources accrued across moments of positivity are durable.”

The support behind the first concept in this theory, broaden, stems from positive emotions broadening our momentary thought-action repertoire (e.g., joy encourages play, contentment encourages us to savour) as opposed to negative emotions that, being adaptive for survival, narrow our attention, thoughts as well as behaviours (e.g., spitting nasty food out or escaping from danger). Just have a think about this. Be it a game of whodunit or problem-solving at work, an open and curious approach can kindle creativity and outside-the-box solutions, while on the flip side, a belittling and cynical attitude likely  inhibits positive or effective resolution.

The second idea, build, refers to how broadened experiences induce activity, like play, which builds up our personal resources in areas of cognition, emotions, social aspects, physical well-being and psychological strength. This personal fuel tank increases our resilience to adversity and supplies both food for personal growth and mettle in later times of need. In effect, “savouring an experience solidifies life priorities; altruistic acts strengthen social ties and build skills for expressing love and care” (Fredrickson, 2003, p. 333). Without broadening activities such as playing, savouring, feeling contentment and being grateful, we lose out on opportunities to refuel and replenish ourselves.

Take a moment to reflect on how often you might be fully experiencing positive emotions. What emotions might open themselves to you were you to be more playful, in the words of Lugones?

Fredrickson came up with a top 10 list of positive emotions. Stay tuned for self-care tips on how to make these positive emotions work for you.