If you’ve delved into life change, chances are you’ve already heard that you should play more. The adult coloring book craze and summer camps for grownups suggest that by midlife, many of us need a cue to return to the joys of childhood and play.
“For those of us over 40, play is especially valuable. We know it improves health, memory and problem solving,” says Fran Mainella, founder of the U.S. Play Coalition. And while play often involves exercise, you don’t have to throw a Frisbee or jump on a pogo stick. “Imaginative play and more sedentary activities that require creativity have been shown to have plenty of benefit.” As director of the National Park Service, Mainella did some of her best problem solving while taking walks.
See also: Getting Serious About Play
“We tend to think of play as the opposite of work,” says Ian Bogost, Ph.D., author of the forthcoming Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom and the Secret of Games. “There’s this idea that when we escape from work and are released from duty and obligation, we’re supposed to let our real identities out to play. But if we can’t be playful in our work and obligations, we might as well give up. After all, that’s where we spend most of our time.”
We think of play as the opposite of work. But if we can’t be playful in our work, we might as well give up.
Bogost, who teaches interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, says, “Play is simply taking the objects at hand and doing something different with them.” It can help to think of the word play in a new context, say, “There’s a lot of play in this steering column.” Plenty of room and freedom, giving you the opportunity to switch things up.
There’s tremendous freedom in accepting the idea that you can be playful almost anywhere, with whatever is in front of you. “It releases you from the burden of having to come up with activities that you think will be fun and then being mad at yourself if you don’t enjoy them.”
Here are five easy ways to put play into your life:
Monday: Use what’s in front of you. Fold a Post-it Note into an origami swan. Make a lobster out of carrots or a shark out of watermelon. Bogost suggests trying that thinking on a larger scale. “Let’s say you’re getting used to being an empty nester, and so every day, you confront a house with extra space. What might you do with that space that feels fun and unexpected?”
And if you really dread what’s in front of you—like yard work or housework—“deciding to pay someone else to do it is a source of play, too. Now you can ask yourself, `What can I do with these four new hours a week?’”
Tuesday: Romance the random. Bogost points out that for many people, the most enjoyable hobbies come about unexpectedly. “It often is just happenstance,” he says, “that someone hears an accordion and discovers polka dancing.” Explore any little detail that pulls your attention, and see where it takes you. Catch yourself enjoying that hum in your garden? Dive into the world of bumblebees. Try an improv workshop, take a trombone lesson, or find a tap-dancing class. Sure, it might be a bust. But that little nudge just might guide you toward your next passion.
Wednesday: Take it outside. Even if you already have some kind of play you like—maybe you’re an Angry Birds freak or a Sudoku fiend—Mainella invites you to bring it outdoors. Why not go to a nearby park and sit on a bench, so you’re adding something new—like a dose of sunshine and the occasional interaction with a squirrel or pigeon? She is also a big believer in leaving screens behind, especially if we spend most of our working lives in front of a computer.
See also: Rethinking the Way We Play
Thursday: Treat yourself to a toy. Toys get a bad rap for adults, Bogost says, because the word conjures up images of man-caves stocked with motorcycles, or $200,000 sailboats. But buying something new—whether it’s a skein of yarn or an ice-cream maker—is another way we bring possibilities into our lives. Bogost is currently enthralled with a new wood chipper. “It started because the shape of my lot makes it hard to get wood out,” he says, “But all of a sudden, it’s giving me all kinds of ideas for things I can do in the yard.”
Friday: Play well with others. Perhaps because we fear that playing seems frivolous, many people pursue games in secret—video games, online Scrabble with strangers. But acknowledging the social value of games opens many possibilities, Mainella says. Round up a few old friends and try bowling. Grab some coworkers and go to Trivia Night at the local pub. Look into a local pickleball league.
Before you know it, you’ll be getting the 60 minutes a day suggested by Mainella and her organization. That recommendation came about to prevent obesity and promote activity in children. But if it’s good for kids, she reasons, “it’s good for all of us.”
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