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Importance of Play: Part Three

Welcome back to the third installment of our series on play.  Now that you know why play is important for children and adults, let’s discuss what play is.

Play is something done, not for the outcome, but for the process.

Imagine a child sitting down with a piece of blank paper and a box of crayons.  She is not attempting to create the next masterpiece of modern art.  She isn’t drafting the first round of architectural drawings for a house either.  Instead, she is allowing her mind to open to all the vast possibilities, to create a world where rainbows include far more than the standard seven colors, where ponies are purple and dragons swim with mermaids.  With crayon in hand, she’s not thinking about what the finished product will be, but is instead caught in the moment.  What will I draw now?  That – perhaps more than anything – is the key to play.

When we play we are fully in the moment.

playing with blocks

So how to we distinguish “real” play from “fake” play?

First, consider your motivation.  True play is self-motivated.  That means that you choose the activity, you choose the rules (or agree to them), and you choose when to quit.  If any of those are chosen for you (without your agreement), then it isn’t true play.  Things like peer pressure or obligation may influence us (or our children) to participate in activities that may appear to be fun and play-like, but without that freedom to choose, it’s not truly playing.

Second, consider the results of the activity.  If the result is more important than the process, it probably isn’t play.  Gambling can be a play activity for an adult if it is done for the enjoyment of the moment, the experience, if you will.  A gambling addict, however, who is completely focused on the high that a winning hand gives them is not engaged in meaningful play.

Third, play should make you actively think.  How?  Well, when we play, we create a set of rules or limitations that we must follow.  These rules can, and should, allow for creativity adjustment as the activity progresses.  This means that our minds must be alert and engaged as we participate to ensure that we’re following these rules.  Playing with my toddler provides a prime example of this.  We’ll get out the dolls and toys, set them up, and she’ll explain the rules of the game.  Maybe only the farm animals can live in the barn or the doll is sick and the others must care for her.  As we play, however, she’ll often change the rules, adding new ones or manipulating old ones, to keep the game fun.  Whenever I break one of the rules, she’s always quick to correct me.  Many of you have probably experienced something similar.

And fourth, play shouldn’t be stressful.  This one is important.  Play doesn’t have to mean all laughter and giggles.  In fact, many play activities are rather focused and even tense activities.  They should never, however, become stressful.  Why?  Well, think about our other rules.  If we’re choosing the activity freely, that means that we have the choice to stop.  If the game gets too tense, we can always choose to walk away without any negative consequences.  The results of our play, remember, aren’t important.  There are no real world consequences if our crayon art doesn’t make it onto a gallery wall or our kick-ball careers don’t earn sponsorships.  And although it’s important for our minds to be alert during play, the rules are of our own creation, not a forced framework that we must follow, so if a particular rule ends up not working, we can change it.


Come back for our last installment on the Importance of Play and learn about the different types of play and what they can do to improve our lives.  Don’t worry, however, because we have a lot more on the way.

All summer long we’ll be posting more articles about different ways you can play including activities for all budgets, different sized families, and more!  If you have a favorite way or place to play, let us know!  We’d love to hear about how you get your fun on and may even share it (with your permission of course) in one of our articles.  Let us know via the comment section or send us a message through our contact page.