Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “It is a happy talent to know how to play.”
Intuitively, it makes sense. But was he actually, empirically right?
The answer is yes. I know, because I checked. The whole point of my master’s thesis was to answer this (and a few other) questions.
But here’s the thing: because playfulness is a talent, that means it’s something we have to learn — not something we’re born with.
And it appears as though many millennials missed the memo.
See, playfulness is like language. And social skills. And motor skills.
We’re born able to learn them — but we’re not born with them.
Which sounds weird, right? Because popular convention says that kids are born curious, creative and playful, but that adults/schools/the education system squash it out of them.
Both can be right. Kids can be born creative and curious and playful… but if they never learn to recognize (or are denied) opportunities and resources for play, they won’t have a good outlet for their creative and curious and playful energy.
This is exactly what is happening to today’s youth.
They never learn how to entertain themselves, because their spend their whole childhoodbeing entertained.
One big reason for this is the high-achieving childhood. Kids don’t have much time to play on their own, anymore, because they are almost always in school, doing homework, attending music lessons, getting tutored (one of the worst things you can possibly do for your child), competing in organized sports, and participating in a billion extracurriculars.
Don’t get me wrong! I think participating in activities — especially competitive sports — is valuable. Early learning experiences matter.
But organized activities are not play.
By definition, play is voluntary. A lot of people believe that if an activity is fun, then people will do it voluntarily.
But the relationship, to some extent, is bidirectional.
If an activity is voluntary, then people will do it for fun.
I know that’s a little confusing — but some of the world’s top motivation researchers have confirmed this.
For example, in 1973, Mark Lepper found that giving preschoolers an unexpected reward for doing something they naturally enjoyed doing — in this case, coloring — undermined their intrinsic motivation to do that activity.
This result, known as overjustification theory, occurred because the extrinsic reward shifted children’s mindset from, “I color because I love to color,” to, “I must have colored because I wanted the reward.”
A similar effect was found in adults. A 2000 study conducted by Deckop and Cirka reported that merit pay programs in a non-profit organization led to decreased feelings of autonomy and intrinsic motivation. (In other words, rewards can undermine intrinsic motivation in work settings, too.)
Another defining characteristic of play is that play is self-determined. As Edward Deci, the motivation guy, writes in Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation, intrinsic motivation (and creativity, and innovation) happens when we are allowed to manipulate rules, materials and goals. (That’s part of the reason why agile software development is so incredibly effective — the best work comes from motivated, self-organized individuals.)
This doesn’t happen in adult-directed activities. Although basketball practice can be fun, it is neither voluntary nor self-directed.
Most importantly, when you’re responding to directions from an adult, you aren’t learning how to entertain yourself. You are being entertained.
Speaking of being entertained — which keeps you from learning how to entertain yourself — you know what else kids today have that older generations didn’t?
Technology. Tons and tons of technology.
Technology is easy. It doesn’t require effort or creativity. It doesn’t require movement — which, as James Emry wrote in How to Be Happy, Even When You’re Programmed Not To Be,
Once upon a time, children were only entertained when they entertained themselves. They would have to walk to the park, ride their bikes to the creek, or get together with other neighborhood kids to play a game.
But now, entertainment increasingly takes place inside the home, in front of a glowing screen.
In fact, as Dr. Phillip Zimbardo writes in his new book, Man Interrupted: Why Young Men Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It, teenagers — especially males — are less likely than ever to take driver’s ed.
(They’re also more likely than ever to be obese — which causes a drop in testosterone, which causes erectile dysfunction. For the first time in history, we are seeing young men who should be virile and hormonal… suffering from erectile dysfunction, which has typically plagued older men.)
Because of our instinct for idleness, we are less likely than ever to leave the home. To socialize with our friends in real life. And to create our own entertainment.
Especially when combined with a high-achieving childhood.
When I meet with my life coaching and college counseling students and they tell me about their day… I’m not surprised that when they have free time, all they want to do is zone out to movies and technology.
After all those organized activities, I wouldn’t have energy to do much else, either!
Nevertheless, every moment they spend online or in organized activities is a moment when these students are not developing their playfulness and leisure skills.
Here’s where my research comes in.
Among other things, my research sough to to determine how much participants actually played, how much they wanted to play, and how much they thought their peers played.
The result? Whether young adults attended Stanford University or a local community college — and whether they reported actually playing a lot or actually playing a little — they all wanted to play the same amount. Which was a lot.
Pretty much everyone in the whole study said that they wanted to play a lot. Like, on a scale of 1-7, they wanted to play 5.8-6.3.
But what kept them from playing?
Schoolwork was the number one obstacle in both conditions. Fair enough, right? It’s school — you’re there to learn.
In the community college sample, though, the second- and third most cited reasons for not playing as much as they wanted to were costs associated with playing (e.g., “I don’t have a car, so I can’t go to the beach”) and having to work a job outside of school.
But in the Stanford sample, one of the top reasons students didn’t play was because there was “nothing to do.” Which is ridiculous for a number of reasons. For example, Stanford is a residential campus. 92% of undergraduates live on-campus.
Unlike the community college, where no one lives on-campus. Meaning that getting together with friends is harder. It requires planning and transportation. You don’t spontaneously run into your friends in the dining hall. You can’t send an email to your dorm list to see if anyone wants to play frisbee in, like, ten minutes.
Not to mention the fact that Stanford spends literally millions of dollars per year on recreation and social opportunities for students.
I have no way of knowing if the community college students were “better” players than Stanford students. For all I know, if they all had cars and money, they might also think there was “nothing to do.”
But I do know that the young adults in my study clearly were not good at being playful if they felt like there was “nothing to do” at Stanford.
Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule.
Millennials grew up surrounded by technology — surrounded by opportunities for passive entertainment. Every moment spent on a device was a missed opportunity to develop playfulness and leisure skills.
Combine that with helicopter parents who worry endlessly, supervise and organize everything, and encourage kids to stay in the house all day (because nothing dangerous happens at home, right?).
Combine it with the “achievement” culture, which drives meaninglessness, purposelessness, stress and exhaustion — in addition to adding structure to every part of a child (and adolescent’s) life.
And you’ve got a lot of young people who never really learned how to play.
The good news is, playfulness is a skill. That means it can be learned! Here are a few suggestions for how to get started:
1. Practice being mindful.
Playful people look at the world with big, excited eyes. They see things — resources, people, opportunities, etc. — that other people don’t. Next time you’re waiting for something — a bus, a light to change, or just to get to the front of a line — open your eyes.
Is there anything around you that you might like to play with now? Or something you might want to come back to later? Is there someone smiling at you? A cute puppy? A tree (or wall, or bridge, or rope, or person) you could climb? Is there something there that’s funny? Is there a flyer for a meetup, a party, a club, or a dance lesson?
I have long since lost track of the good things that have happened to me because I am always looking for opportunities to play.
Leftover balloons? I could use these to play MarioKart — but IN REAL LIFE!!!!!
2. Live like you’re traveling.
When we travel, we open our minds up to every possibility. We enter the travel mindset, where everything — even a trip to the grocery store — can be an adventure. Every conversation could change our worldview.
Then we go home and we turn off our travel mindset and enter our routine. A trip to the grocery store becomes a chore. The people on the train become strangers we don’t want to make awkward eye contact with.
After all, in the words of Marcel Proust, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
See also: Life Hack – Life Like You’re Traveling.
It is ALWAYS worth pulling the car over to skip through an almond orchard.
3. Practice being silly. You’re an adult. Sadly, that probably means you’re self-conscious and afraid of looking silly.
Which is exactly why kids have waaaaay more fun at museums than adults. Kids run up to the interactive displays and interact with them! They might not know exactly how it works — but they’re going to figure it out!
But adults hang back. They watch what others do. They think about participating… but they’re afraid of being embarrassed.
And I get it. Squealing with glee when you see a cute puppy or climbing a tree in your work clothes might attract… looks. But if you stop worrying about what others think, you can feel more unrestrained, and experience the breathless joy of a child.
Finally, for the record: if you get looks, which you probably won’t, since everyone’s so obsessed with technology that they have no idea what’s happening in the world around them… the people around you are probably thinking, That looks like fun! I wish I were having that much fun. Or possibly, I wish I’d thought of that!
On the off chance that they’re judging you for being playful — who cares? You’ll probably never see them again, anyway.
Dance like no one’s watching — because, probably, no one is.
4. Restrict your technology and passive entertainment use.
I’ve already discussed why technology is bad for your leisure skill development.
But constant connectivity is also bad for your presence and mindfulness. Which means it’s bad for your health and happiness.
It’s funny, because technology has spurned the advent of FOMO, or “fear of missing out.” The reason you’re missing out is because you’re constantly staring at a screen.
And I’m right — there’s not.
Fifteen minutes is more time than you think. And a lot can happen in a quarter hour.
Yesterday, I was skateboarding to a coffee shop, where I was going to order an amazing Havana Latte and work on my website. On the way, I spotted a slackline. I almost skated right by…
But then I decided, why not? I kicked off my shoes, put my feet in the dirt, and spent a few minutes slacklining. It was a great core workout — I didn’t realize how hard I was working till I was done, breathing heavy and sweating just a little. And I had a lot of fun focusing on my balance and clearing my mind of everything except how my body was moving through space.
Here are two hints: 1) It helps to focus on one point off in the distance, instead of looking around or down at your feet, and 2) Sometimes, it helps to pretend you’re filming yourself or taking a selfie. I’m not sure why — it has to do with how you move your arms, I think.
The other thing about reclaiming the fifteen minutes is that… if you take three fifteen-minute breaks per day to zone out on Facebook, that’s 45 minutes per day on Facebook.That’s enough time to start writing a song. That’s enough time to go for a short hike. That’s enough time to play a round of 3×3 basketball. That’s enough time to dance.
All the things you think you “used to love, but don’t have time for anymore,” are probably things you could have time for, if you wanted to.
Make it happen. Also:
6. Make something.
It feels really good to make something. Even if it’s something related to work. Even if it isn’t. You need a new desk? Try building it yourself. You have a guitar? Write a song. I’ve been writing a lot of songs lately, and it’s been a seriously cool way to play with language, play with music, and memorialize important people and events in my life (even though I take a fair bit of artistic license).
Someone special’s birthday is coming up? Make them the coolest card you can. You wonder why people behave a certain way in a situation? Develop a hypothesis, design an experiment, and gather some pilot data. You have a cool idea for an iPhone app? Learn to code, and build it. Remember: Smart people should build things.
So there you go — a problem, with a couple of solutions. This list is far from exhaustive, and I would love to hear from other play experts! How do you practice playfulness in your life?