The summer holidays are over – but we shouldn’t stop playing

Play is good for kids and for adults – so why do we try so hard to cordon it off from work? Jon Bunting/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The summer holidays are well and truly over. The magic of Christmas is back in its box. Sales of champagne have plunged. The customary dribble back to work across the stretch of January, and now early February, is near complete. Kids are back at school.

The serious business of being is upon us. The fun is over. It’s time to knuckle down. Strange that at this same time each year, we carefully redraw the line between work and play.

The distinction is rather odd when you think about it, as if work and play cannot possibly or helpfully co-exist. Work throughout the year. Play at the year’s end. Work during the week. Play on the weekend. Work during the school term. Play in the holidays.

Yet if play brings us so much pleasure – and the buoyancy of the leisure and culture industries suggests that it does – then why do we segregate it from so much lived experience?

Pleasure is not the only gift of play. Studies show that play improves mental and physical health, reduces stress, enables creativity, generates a host of skills, improves academic performances and creates connections across gender, race and species.

While the social sciences are forever wrangling with degrees and angles of cause and effect, it is clear that play has much to offer. We only need remember the message from Stuart Brown, psychiatrist and founder of the US National Institute for Play.

Brown’s studies of prisoners revealed an absence of play in childhood. This led him to conclude that if you want to know the real value of play, you simply have to imagine a life without it.

There is rising interest in play and its role in our lives. Much of this interest is in the developmental spheres, with a focus on the function of play in children and animals.

One by-product of this is the growing movement of educators and child psychologists who want to restore unstructured play as a centrepiece of childhood. With rising individual and national pressure for children to meet ever higher bars of academic success, and with structured activities filling afternoons and weekends, little room is left for unstructured play.

There are also rising levels of obesity and depression. All of this makes the loss of playtime a cause for concern.

As for adults and play, similar trends suggest we also want more play in our lives.

We too have issues with obesity and depression. We might take the growing numbers of festivals around the country as evidence of our desire for occasions to play. Discussions of the work-life balance turn on the worrying creep of work into play-time.

Massive multiplayer online games provide whole worlds within which adults play with reality and identity. Exercise trends such as Zumba, Bokwa and trampolining are hugely popular, we might assume, because they bring fun to fitness regimes. The reported 400% rise in sex-toy sales thanks to 50 Shades of Grey suggests that adults even want more play in the bedroom.

Part of the allure and value of play is that it is (by most definitions) intrinsically motivated. When you play, you do so for the sake of it. You throw a ball to throw a ball. You skip to skip. You invent characters, have tea parties and fight baddies for no other reason than the value found within.

It is perhaps here that we find a reason for the separation of work and play.

So much about work seems to orient us toward the extrinsic. Salaries, bonuses, commission, promotion, location and position are all external rewards for our work.

No doubt, these tools can improve the quality of life inside and outside of work and are welcome recognition for a job well done. But the emphasis on the extrinsic means the value of the work in and of itself takes second place, which in turn impacts negatively on staff satisfaction levels, and arguably on the product or service.

Play can reinvigorate our relationship with the work we do. We know that play is good for productivity in other ways. Creativity, that oh-so-hot resource of the early 21st century, is deeply linked to play.

The capacity to operate outside the normal, to mess with the meanings of things, is a dimension of play. In play, a stick can be a sword or a wand, a tree can be a border or the queen. Being able to see the world in this way is prized in the knowledge economy. So why must play and work be so antithetical?

It would be a shame to turn play into the latest sacrificial lamb to productivity, that most greedy demi-god of capital.

Instead, let’s find ways to keep the spirit of summer alive in ourselves, our relationships, our children and our communities. One legacy of the holidays should surely be to remember that play is a good thing, and that we need to find ways to keep playing no matter the time of day, week or year.


Read other articles in our creativity series here.