I went to an improv workshop yesterday, a pleasant break from regular sessions at a conference where I’m presenting up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. We were coached to loosen up by saying our names in silly ways, doing the hokey-pokey, shaking ourselves out, performing hand dances, and walking about outside in funny ways in the blowy, sunny day.
We did story rounds, each person making up the next installment in a tale that began with a funny name and a hint that it belonged to an animal of an unknown species that liked to chase butterflies. “He likes to sleep in the small of my back and to wake me up by chewing my ear,” I improvised. “I let him chase butterflies because I’m training him to catch and retrieve flying books, the kind I keep in my library in birdcages.” We made up stories for partners, spoke to each other in made-up languages the other had to translate, and took each other into childhood memories, rolling on the grass as we mimed playing with toy trains or rough-housing with a puppy.
There was a moment when I knew I had graduated from time-bound, goal-oriented activity into the blessed child-mind state of pure play. This came early,when we were given paper and crayons and asked to draw images of our Serious and Playful sides in about thirty seconds flat. My Mr Serious took form, in stern blacks and greys and midnight blues, as a figure I knew well: a young man who went around in pinstriped power suits and was oh-so self-important and wedded to driving agendas. My Mr Playful was a jolly clown-like figure in a garish orange plaid coat, with a gondalier’s hat and a bow tie the colors of a plate of spilled spaghetti bolognaise, arms thrown up to the sky, mouth open in song.
When we were told the time was up and we should leave the drawings, I did not want to do this. I kept sneaking oportunities to add touches to my drawings. Covertly, I spilled the whole box of crayons into the crease of the sofa next to me so I could grab new colors in any instant of opportunity. In sneaky moments, I turned Mr Playful’s shoes purple and jazzed up his bow tie. I did not want to stop drawing.
Surely this is one of the vital characteristics of play: it is something we don’t want to stop.
Other properties of play:
* we do it for its own sake
* we choose to do it
* it feels good
* we lose track of time
* we stop listening to our inner critic or taskmaster
* we don’t worry about the consequences
* we improvise without inhibitions
The benefits of play are rich and many. “We are built to play and built by play,” writes psychiatrist Stuart Brown. Play is the heart of creativity. It also promotes survival in both humans and animals. It tones up and enlarges the brain. It grows our ability to adapt and handle new challenges. It helps us to connect with others. It’s energizing. Best of all, we accomplish all this and more through play without thinking about what we are gaining. And we don’t want to stop.