The power of play


November 19, 2013

Three little girls race to climb up the ladder, out to the twisted branches, forgetting entirely about the ground they leave behind. They move with carefree confidence. Adults beneath them are left in wonder … and with a subtle feeling of envy.

Ella and Poppy are 10 years old, Bea is seven. They sit on a piece of wood Ella’s dad has crafted between the branches. The treehouse – isn’t it every child’s dream? Maybe it’s to do with being taller than everyone else. Maybe it’s the magic of being in another, cooler land. This one comes with its own pulley system – when it’s time for refreshments they send the bucket down, fill up, (thanks mum) then pull it back up. Ella says her dad comes up here on occasion, but the treehouse is really just for kids.

Why is the treehouse only a place for children? What happens as we grow older that convinces us the ground is for adults, the treetops for children? From that magical age of imagination, to the life of the adult … what happens to play?

Murdoch University professor Peter Wright studies links between creativity, young people and society. He says as we grow up our play changes over time. ‘Free-play’ (think cartwheels and sandpits) is replaced with rule-determined play (tennis, poker). These rules make adults feel safe and secure.

Wright says play is the result of creativity. Creativity is the process of putting things together in new and interesting ways and this requires imagination – the ability to see things as if they could be otherwise. He believes creativity is critical to the survival of humanity.

Adults should make time for play too, experts say. Photo: Christie Bosworth

Embley House play therapist Donna Beddells, who works with both children and adults, says most adults have forgotten how to play. Play isn’t a luxury, she says. It is vital for both our physical and mental health. It helps us to manage negative feelings, or at least give us a break from them so we can re-group our thoughts.

She quotes from Dr Stuart Brown from the National Institute for Play in the United States: “What do most Nobel Laureates, innovative entrepreneurs, artists and performers, well-adjusted children, happy couples and families, and the most successfully adapted mammals have in common? They play enthusiastically throughout their lives.”

Beddells explains in real play we are able to share joy, laughter and fun. Bonding, compassion and trust are developed in both children and adults through regular play.

In the transition from childhood to adulthood, she sees that adults spend too much time either looking to the future, or worrying about the past. We lose being “in the moment”, as children are.

Through play we use our imaginations to adapt and solve problems. Play arouses curiosity, which is important for creativity and innovation. And play makes us happier.

Life coach Gillian Skeer, from Perth Creative Coaching Solutions, says a lot of creative people don’t have time to be creative. She explains this is because society convinces us success is all about affluence.

Skeer says most people don’t enjoy their jobs. The US Deloitte Shift Index, a business trend report, confirms 80 per cent of people are dissatisfied with their work. This is a huge problem, Skeer says, because we spend most of our lives at work. When we are out of our natural ‘flow’ (for example, a creative person in a bank) we devote a great deal of effort to pushing against the current. Things are harder, and we are not any happier in the process.

“Everyone’s got their thing,” Skeer says. “So whatever it is, find that passion, that thing where they can let go and enjoy it, that’s what we’re here for.”

Wright says everyone has the capacity to be creative. They just need the opportunity to express their creativity. To be given this chance, creativity needs to be valued and rewarded by society, requiring a shift in values.

A life with no opportunity for play and creativity can be detrimental in many ways, according to Wright. It can be detrimental in terms of social connectiveness, social inclusion and mental health.

If not a pre-determined, career-obsessed, play-deprived life … what? Perhaps we can learn something from children?

Sarah Oliver teaches children of all ages at the Perth Steiner School. The alternative education system relies on different sets of values and principles to mainstream schooling.

Oliver explains the Steiner approach encourages children to come to their own personal discovery of how the world works. This learning can be done through developing creative pictures, in contrast to more adult-like rational explanations.

Play is encouraged in Steiner education as a natural way for children to make sense of the world. Oliver says when children are playing they are really free and into the play, and are not concerned about what other people are thinking about them. Think of how this could help in the corporate world.

Daring to try new things through play is encouraged – even if it doesn’t work. “Doing the same thing the same way is going to get the same result,” Oliver says.

Beddells encourages adults to give themselves permission to play in a similar carefree way.

“By seeing the world through a child’s eye, adults can learn to live for the moment – to not care what others think and to not ‘keep up with the Jones’,” says Beddells.  “They can view the world as a playground with endless possibilities and do things they can enjoy.”

Playful ideas for grown ups:

  • Play during work as it can help you look at problems from a new perspective
  • Surround yourself with playful people
  • Play at home, at work, at the beach or the park – anywhere!
  • Try something as simple as playing chasey, drawing in the sand or talking to the dog
  • Host a games party instead of a drinking party
  • Take a risk – from as little as wearing something out of the ordinary, to bungy jumping
  • Be creative in the kitchen, try new recipes.

This story was written as part of Curtin Journalism’s Feature Writing unit.

Categories: Health

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