The Lost Art of Play: Reclaiming a Primal Tradition

I’ve got play on the mind today, folks. It’s mid-week, yes, but there’s something more to it. This week I’m presenting on play at the Ancestral Health Symposium in Los Angeles. It promises to be a great event, and I’m looking forward to being among so many like-minded folks – experts and laypeople alike. I’ve talked about play now and then on Mark’s Daily Apple. I’ve even done a definitive guide for it, but that hardly means I’ve closed the book. As with most things in life, time and experience have a way of revealing new angles, deeper layers, and unforeseen connections. Our need for play is likewise continuous and complex – and the likely roots of our inclination are not what you’d expect.

Experts have long studied the benefits of play for children, and the evolutionary logic is pretty transparent. Play undoubtedly honed practical skills like hunting, cooking, building, and child care. Likewise, it served as an important backdrop for social development just as it does today. It’s easy to justify playtime for kids. (They get so darn much enjoyment out it.) But what about us?

Talk of playtime for adults often garners eye rolls and claims of self-indulgence. (Ye old Puritanical influence rears its repugnant head.) Primal living, of course, shows us that the optional stuff like play isn’t really optional. When we embrace play, we claim a better quality of life for ourselves. We decrease stress. We connect better with those around us. We get out more and get more out of what we do. We find more fun and maybe even meaning.

For us grown-ups, however, does play simply make sense as a therapeutic counter to the rampant stress and social distance in our society, or is there a deeper, more inherent drive – a timeless impulse that even Grok himself would’ve answered to?

Stuart Brown is a psychologist who has devoted decades to studying play and applying its benefits to both personal therapy and business optimization. He’s one of the few experts who has focused his study on the role of play throughout the life cycle. Over his career, he’s studied play in a host of cultures and historical times, and he’s compared the play patterns of children and adults in both human and various animal species. He calls play a “profound biological process” and presents evidence that play continually shapes the human brain throughout our lifetime.

In his book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Brown suggests we’re a unique species in this regard. Many experts in fields as diverse as biology, anthropology, and psychology have written about human neoteny – the extension of many “juvenile” characteristics into adulthood. Sure, we keep our (relatively speaking) baby faces. We have an unprecedented long childhood period. Even more importantly, however, we retain the early interest in exploring, experimenting, and tinkering with our environments long after the adults of other species have settled into the serious business of instinctual routine. Though we had our own survival to ensure in the same harsh circumstances, we held on to the juvenile tendency of pushing the envelope in ways other adult mammals didn’t. For example, adult chimps, Brown explains, lose their playfulness and settle into relatively rigid patterns of behavior as adults. According to Brown, the cognitive and creative benefits of human neoteny are continually derived through our lifelong inclination toward play and experimentation. They’re responsible, in part, for the relative success of our species.

And that social development we were so busy honing in our neighborhood bands and play groups? Brown suggests play has been crucial to the social cohesion of our communities – all the way from early tribe life to modern day urban living. Play, Brown argues, allowed us to organize in more complex social groups, which further enhanced our potential for survival.

We are, without a doubt, the most adaptable of species. We’re capable of living anywhere on earth, and we’ve wandered to the far flung, inhospitable lands long before modern conveniences made those environments easier to weather. We’re continually adapting – exploring, changing, reinventing our roles and our interactions with our environments – throughout our life cycle. As Brown explains, we have a capacity for cognitive, social, and behavioral plasticity that drove our species’ evolution and still lives within us today.

I thought of Brown’s book when I read an article in the Wall Street Journal some weeks ago about the number of innovative CEOs (Google, Amazon, Sims games, etc.) who went to play-focused Montessori schools for their early years (preschool-K/1st grade). The difference in educational method came down to what one CEO called the “joy of discovery,” the interest in going down all kinds of roads, experimenting, and ‘letting the mind run imaginatively.'”

Play in this regard isn’t a diversion from our lives but a complex and unique engagement with it – with the people and things that populate our environments, the circumstances and challenges that exist in our lives. Children, psychologists tell us, use play as a backdrop for processing difficult emotions and novel scenarios. They continually test out their own developmental adaptations and new discoveries within the safe, experimental space of play. And, as anyone who’s observed children at play knows, they throw themselves into it and don’t look back. They commit 100% to the constructed scenario: the random team affiliations, the imagined roles, the fantastical scenarios. In short, play is fun and beneficial because they create it – and feel it – as real.

A childhood friend of mine had this big, crazy, mutt of a dog who we’d always play with. He had short legs and lumbered as he ran, but he’d do anything to keep up with us. One of our favorite games when we were cooped up on a stormy or frigid day was getting the dog to chase us through the house. We’d get him good and riled up in one end of the house and then run to the opposite end where we’d jump on the couch, grab the cushions to shield ourselves, and wait for the dog to come leaping at us with crazed fervor. (The cushions were to protect our bare legs and arms from getting scratched to oblivion, but we often didn’t make it in time.) The running through the house, of course, helped us blow off steam those days. The real thrill, however, was the chase, the sound of that big, barking, slobbering dog at our heels. Though we knew the dog wouldn’t intentionally hurt us, we were on some deep, ecstatic level running for our lives. We howled with laughter every time that dog came running – half from the hilarious sight of his flapping jowls and crazed eyes and half from the adrenaline rush of it all. Later when we’d worn out either ourselves or the dog, we’d compare the day’s damage as well as scars from the last bout.

As I watched my children play capture the flag years later, it was clear their enjoyment likewise had little to do with the physical exercise itself. Sure, kids naturally love being in constant motion, but something else was operating there. The real center of play for my kids was the deep emotional investment. It’s the feeling of risk and power, of silliness and absurdity, of the slight, alternating edges of (benign) fear and ecstatic relief. How many of us feel that level of emotional investment in our play – or in anything? Even in our most competitive states, our motivation is hollowed out in a way it somehow wasn’t years ago.

I think that’s the heart of what we lose as adults – the freedom of play, the pure release of it. We can cajole ourselves to go play frisbee in the backyard, dress our kids’ dolls for their latest tea party soiree, or even make ourselves join a summer baseball league or pottery class. In these cases, it’s not the action but the spirit that’s lacking. Most of the time we’re likely just faking it for the sake of the kids or our own sense of “healthy,” “well-rounded” obligation. (Obligation to play – how depressing is that?) We can be conscientious and simultaneously miss the point – and benefit – entirely. How many of us see ourselves here? I know I’m guilty from time to time. When my kids were young and life was more hectic, it was probably – and ironically – more so.

To get the full advantage of genuine play, we have to surrender – or at least suspend – something in ourselves that’s often hard to relinquish — the obsession with obvious productivity for one, the onslaught of technological distraction for another. If we want to nurture the best of our inherent neoteny, we need to follow its nudge toward continual openness and experimentation. Neglecting the play impulse doesn’t bode well for us. Without play, Brown suggests, we become creatively rigid over time like the adult primates. We continually narrow the terrain of our cognitive musings, our social interactions, and physical life. The choice has inevitable consequences for our emotional well-being, our practical resilience, and our creative potential.

Reclaiming play can at first seem intense and challenging, particularly if the muscle of our imagination has gone unused for long. We have more layers (of stress, rationalism, distraction) to peel back than, say, kids do. Children seem to migrate back and forth between the imaginative and real, the instinctual and rational, effortlessly – their connections between these worlds being more translucent and dynamic. Reclaiming play, I think, means making that portal more accessible – clearing out the mental space between concrete “reality” and fluid, open-ended play. Like a path in the woods, the more we travel it the more navigable it becomes and the more instinctual our experience of it is. Play and humor gradually infiltrate life in a free-flowing way again. We rediscover our own orientation toward play – whatever form it most naturally and enjoyably takes in our personalities and circumstances. As Brown says, it’s about reclaiming play not just as a concept but as a personal, individualized passion. We all remember what inspired that in our younger selves, don’t we?

As we round the corner into the final leg of summer, I’m thinking about cultivating a more genuine spirit of play in my days. I’m committed to scheduling play less and finding it more, chucking the routine and making more space for the casual experience of it.

Thanks for stopping by today. Let me know your thoughts on reclaiming play – in action and spirit. Enjoy the week, everyone!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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