On playing

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I am lucky enough to have grandparents who live in the green, glowing heart of rural Sussex, where lambs gambol, bonfires flare and dogs rule the land. It’s brilliant. The air is clear and the fields endless. It’s the kind of place where you can imagine yourself taking up residence in an abandoned cottage and living off the land for the rest of your life, before dying in an honest, earthy, violent way – shot by a stray bullet from a farmers’ long, wood-panelled shotgun, perhaps, or minced up by a combine harvester. Rather than, as is more likely, killed by slow neurological decay, or a series of heart attacks brought on by a lifetime of stressful commuting under halogen light.

A while ago I was out for a walk in their paddock when I came across a large rubber tyre, half buried in the ground in such a way that it was wedged in, and you could bounce from side to rubbery side without fear of dislodging it. I did so, climbing up on the tyre and jumping across its diameter like a child. The trees swayed above me. Bouncing from side to side, I had the weirdest feeling: a strange, quivering peace, cut through with nostalgia. Time slowed down. I felt light and wobbly and expansive, like when you step out of a hot car at the end of a long journey. I realised that I was doing something I hadn’t done for years: I was playing.

What is play, and how does it differ from work? I would say that play is any fun, relaxing activity characterized by the following:

  1. No clear ‘finish line’ as with e.g. washing dishes. Play is never ‘complete’ or ‘done’ in the same way that work is.
  2. Does not involve goal or target-setting; purposeless.
  3. Something you can’t be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at, skilled or unskilled at.

To clarify: you can play an instrument (tinkering with the piano keys for an indefinite period one lazy afternoon, playing snatches of melody or composing bits and pieces of your own), but you can also ‘work’ at an instrument (spending an hour learning a piece by heart.)

The recent trend in adult colouring books represents our collective desire for more play in our lives. Sketching, climbing trees and doing handstands in the park also count as play. I think parkour is a pretty good example of a ‘playful’ physical discipline; some people actively build strength and practice their skills in order to master a particular move, but you could also spend a happy hour jumping around and hanging from things aimlessly. But play could also be something as simple as sitting in a field and tying two strands of grass together, or skimming pebbles across a lake.

Why play? Why find time to play when you’ve got work to do and people to see and laundry to do and articles to read and emails to check and tickets to book and only so many hours in your precious and all-too-short days? A couple of reasons:

1.  Play enhances creativity
During play, the mind relaxes and makes connections it wouldn’t make when on its treadmill of work, socialising, food and sleep. Play, apparently, is a precursor to achieving ‘flow’ – a psychological state in which you are totally and happily immersed in what you are doing.

2. Play is good for mental health
Just as the modern working week makes us all a bit nuts, making time to play can reduce stress, depression and anxiety. Play is closely linked to the principles behind mindfulness, as a way to fully inhabit the present moment.

Because play – like meditation, yoga and walks in the sun – is so good for us, Google and other corporates have installed ‘playstations’ at their campus, where employees can take a break to play with lego, or have a game of pool. This is all part of the monetisation of wellbeing: play enhances creativity and is good for mental health; happy and creative employees are good for business. (See also: this article on happiness as a business resource).

There are very, very few things you can do now that don’t result in some sort of economic output (spending, selling,  producing, consuming) even if they’re (on the surface of it) free. Watching a Youtube video? Revenue from the  20 second ad at the beginning is trickling into someone’s pocket.  Taking a walk at lunchtime? Think of that increased productivity! We inhabit a cultural moment in which natural, simple activities – like running, drinking water, growing vegetables, eating cereal, and breathing – are being commodified ( in the form of gym memberships and fancy running shoes, those weird cylindrical embossed glass drinking bottles, pricey allotments, the Cereal Cafe, meditation apps).

Play is one of the last remaining activities – or non-activities – that can offer genuine escape (as opposed to the artificial ‘escape’ exemplified by the £9 jam-jar cocktail) from the exhausting, tedious, capitalistic cycle of  Instagram and fitness classes and Groupon and vloggers and 2 for 1 and spa breaks and job applications and zero-hours contracts and Amazon and TimeOut and hashtags and work, work, work.

That’s why play – when practised (I originally put ‘done’ but that doesn’t feel right – play is never ‘done’) far, far away from the Google campus – is a tiny, quiet form of rebellion. If you do one thing this bank holiday, please walk to the nearest park and make a daisy chain or do some headstands, just because you can, and don’t take photos on your iPhone, or tell anyone about it.

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