How do you Play? by Ben Michaelis, Ph.D.

Quiz: Do You Play?

1. Do you consider yourself a playful person?
(1) Absolutely. Playing is essential to living.
(2) Kind of. I would like to play more but sometimes I have a hard time letting go.
(3) No way. Play is for kids. I’m not a kid and I don’t feel comfortable playing as an adult.

2. When do you play? 
(1) Often. I try to bring my sense of play to almost everything I do. If you take life too seriously it gets boring. Let's have fun.
(2) Every once in a while, with a small number of trusted people.
(3) I never play these days.

3. Do you consider your imagination to be an important part of who you are? 
(1) Yes. I am constantly dreaming up new ideas for my future and imagining exciting new horizons.
(2) Sort of. I am a practical person and so I spend most of my mindshare on reality, but occasionally I imagine or daydream about a brighter future.
(3) No. Who has time for imagination?

Add up the scores (1, 2, or 3) on the three questions and look below to learn how playful you are these days.

Do You Play? — Add It Up!

Total Score 3-4: You have retained your spirit of play in your adulthood. Feel free to read on but only if it doesn’t get in the way of your play.

Total Score 5-6: You value play but may have difficulty doing it very often. Keep reading for strategies on how to play in ways that feel comfortable to you.

Total Score 7-9: You have left play in your past, but that’s okay. It’s never too late to get it back. Let’s learn how together.

If you tend to have difficulty playing these days, you are not alone. Imagination and play often get left by the side of the road in our adult lives, not because we experience a sudden shift in values at some specific turning point, but because we become distracted by the demands of daily life. As adults we take on responsibilities and do what we must do to survive. We relegate play and imagination to the status of a spare-time activity — what people often call a “hobby” — rather than making them central to our lives. And while play and imagination may not be critical for surviving, they are imperative for living a meaningful and joyful life. After all, if you can’t use your imagination to explore your next big thing, how can you possibly get there?

Even if you played with abandon in your early years, it is possible to lose the spirit of play in adolescence as you labor under the demands of looking cool in front of peers or appearing capable or polished to parents. If you were fortunate enough to retain your spirit of play through your teens, it can still be siphoned out of your life when you enter adulthood because of the never-ending demands of daily life. Because many of us spend so little time imagining and playing, we may not know how to use our imaginations in a way that feels safe. I have heard many patients suggest that they have a hard time playing with ideas or different roles because they are afraid that they might encounter embarrassing or shameful thoughts.

The fear that delving into your imagination will open Pandora’s Box and lead you down the road to ruin is, unfortunately, all too common, but unfounded. If done properly, exploring your innermost ideas and fantasies will lead you toward redemption, not perdition. The way to cross the threshold to play is with freedom and boundaries.

Freedom and Boundaries

Your thoughts and feelings are a part of you — even the ones that you don’t like. If you feel ashamed of ideas that come to mind because they seem to reflect poorly on your moral character, remember: They are just thoughts. Regardless of whether you like your thoughts or ideas, they are in your head, not outside of it. Acting on some of your ideas may cause you and others great pain, but experiencing them in your mind cannot. Your mind is playing with ideas, and it is far healthier to explore them in your mind’s eye than to try to hold them back. Most of the time it is the repression of unwanted thoughts that causes problems, not the thoughts themselves.

So how do you get into the place where you can play without judgment but still retain the boundaries to keep you and those close to you safe from limitless indulgence? With your Play Space and Play Tools.

Your Play Space

One of the greatest ideas from childhood is the play space. Designating a room, or even part of a room, as an area for imagination and creative exploration is one of the best things you can do for a child — or for an adult, for that matter, because it gives them permission to use their imaginations within the structure of a space that is set aside expressly for that purpose. Having the authority to open your mind in a designated area gives you both the freedom to imagine and the boundaries of knowing that whatever you dream up or create does not need to be subjected to the rules of reason that govern the rest of the world.

If you are feeling stuck, consider creating a play space where you can think and imagine possibilities for yourself. You can do this in your car, on your train ride to work, or while you are making dinner. Your location is less important than your orientation. The key is giving yourself the freedom to come up with new ideas or things that you want to do or be. At the beginning, it may be useful to pick a consistent time that has a defined beginning and end so you know when you will be open to exploration and when you have to put your imagining aside and deal with the pesky nuisance of reality.

Your Play Tools

When you are young and haven’t yet learned to negotiate your world with words, which usually happens around age 2, you think in feelings and images rather than in sentences and logic. During childhood, if we are fortunate, we use lots of different tools to express ourselves. Paint, puppets, collage, blocks, colored pencils, and clay are all great play tools that can be used to stimulate and express your imagination. One of the great things about these play tools is that by using them you may be able to access ways of thinking and feeling from long ago, before words got in your way.

Take a moment and think back to your childhood. Were there certain play tools that you tended to use? What were they? Could you use them now in order to jump start your imagination about what’s next for you?

Now that you know where you want to play and what you might want to play with, go out there and just do it, Nike style! Play, play, play with abandon!

The more you open your mind to playing with new thoughts and ideas, the more comfortable you will become doing it. Your imagination is a muscle — use it or lose it. When you play, don’t worry about accomplishing or achieving anything in particular — just open your mind and let it run free.

Leave the rules at the door. Whether you like to paint, make puppets, do collage, or mold with clay, go into your play space and just play. Let your mind off its leash. You’ll be glad you did.

As for me, I’m going out to play too. I’ll catch up with you in a couple of weeks when I get back!

For more by Ben Michaelis, Ph.D., click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.