Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
4 Aug

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!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. This topic has been on my mind all week. I love playing and take every chance I get, whether it’s swinging my nieces around, chasing my parents’ dog or letting her chase me, going to the military obstacle course, which is like a big playground for adults. Summer is fantastic for playing outside and allows for a lot of spontaneity. The weekend is just hours away and I can’t wait to play :)

    Hanna wrote on August 5th, 2011
  2. I think play is undervalued for both kids and adults. It’s so much more than just a stress-relief or way to blow off steam.

    So many people seem to think you need to restrict play time and get kids to work in order to learn. But it’s so backwards, because play is *how* they truly learn and by stifling it, you stunt their intellectual growth.

    A really good blog on the roles of play and curiosity as foundations of learning is Peter Gray’s Freedom to Learn. He frequently discusses what we can learn from hunter-gatherer societies. The ideas presented are very consistent with Primal living, and I highly recommend it.

    Hannah wrote on August 5th, 2011
  3. Amazing post, Mark – even by your standards. Really got me thinking!

    Wouldn’t it be great to have place that was completely focused on play – but for adults? A ‘Paleo Playground’, if you like?

    For paleo enthusiast to come and really test themselves – running, jumping, climbing and generally playing physical games mimicking the everyday lives our ancestors lived.

    In my mind this place would contains a monster climbing frame, various balancing and movement equipment, an obstacle course and a variety of other physical challenges designed for those who want to push themselves a bit harder – to get fitter and stronger and generally unleash the strength, flexibility and resilience of their ‘inner caveman’.

    What d’you think? What would you put into the perfect Paleo Playground?

    Olly wrote on August 5th, 2011
    • You know how a Greyhound racing track has a mechanical rabbit that the dogs chase around the track? Well, I want a track in a field with a big mechanical “tiger” – but instead of us chasing the “tiger”, the “tiger” is chasing us! Sprint, Sprint, uphill, downhill, S-p-r-i-n-t !!!

      We could set the “tiger” to different speeds, depending on how “hungry” it is. Start with a tiger that has just eaten so its really not all that desperate, it’s just messing around and kinda slow because it’s full. Then, work your way up to the tiger that is really hungry – ravenous. Climb the tree to safety in time and you’ve “won”!

      Lady Ellyn wrote on August 5th, 2011
  4. Lovely post, timely and important. What I’d love to see for ‘adults’ (as I work with children a great deal) is for all of us to stop thinking of how we develop as linear – as if we have a personal history/development time-line with points where play stops and fitness begins, for example. Or where play is ‘developmentally’ appropriate and then…not. I don’t know what the answer is, but I do think there is a movement afoot to erase the linear way of viewing things in many arenas. Does anyone ever still feel 5? 11? 20? and also whatever their age actually is – all at once, for example? I do. I think many people do.

    I think we let our brains get hooked on a track we are set upon once we enter school – you know, the track to “Adulthood,” which has you stopping at the education station, the college station, the career station, the family station, the empty nest station, then the retirement station, etc. until, you reach the, um, ‘end of the line.’

    And these stations have subsets. Play is a subset of the ‘early childhood’ station. And then becomes sports, if a child is lucky, or PE, And then the ‘fitness’ subset in ‘adulthood’ (that boring stuff on a treadmill, for most).

    My point, before I get lost on the track :-) Play is Human. And Animal. All living creatures play. Some would say even the trees play with the wind. I like that, too :-) Our Play Net should expand & as we grow, not be abandoned, diminished or contained in any pre-conceived point on a line. Thanks again for the great post on one of my favorite topics!

    liz wrote on August 5th, 2011
  5. Don’t forget to dance, and sing too!

    My wife and I went to see a Beatles tribute band the other night, and at first I was such a negative nelly. We drove to get there and arrived a bit late. After their first set we went for a walk, and when we came back for their second set, we eventually got up and started dancing: It took a while to get into it, but next thing you know we are dancing with all these great people, singing along at the top of our lungs. Wow. I highly recommend going out to see live music and dancing. Dance classes are great too, but I love the spontaneity of boogieing!

    Matthew Muller wrote on August 5th, 2011
  6. I had to laugh at your description of the big slobbery mutt chasing you guys across the house. That’s exactly the game that my two and a half year old son plays with our big slobbery Lab mix. It’s a lovely thing!

    Dawn wrote on August 5th, 2011
  7. From one Mark to another, thanks for this post.

    I’m a fitness professional and I’ve been reading MDA (both current and old posts) for the last week or so now, and I’m hooked! It’s very refreshing to see someone focus not just on eating the way our ancestors did (which, granted, is all too necessary), but also taking other cues from what I guess one would consider “natural” life. Sitting in a cubicle and using Angry Birds as your source of fun just doesn’t mesh with what I think of when I think of living well.

    Thanks again, Mark!

    Mark Haner wrote on August 5th, 2011
  8. This is a great post Mark.

    I am a 22 year old college student, and my summer job this year was playing games with kids.

    One thing I finally started to realize by the end of the summer is that imagination is an integral part of the fun for the kids. For example, the kids got bored with normal dodge ball, but then one of them created a game called “War” where the teams had bases (playgrounds), generals, and countries (Russia vs. America). Of course, “War” was almost the exact same game as dodge ball, but it took on a life of its own.

    I am certainly guilty of overly rigid thinking at times. I love sports and working out, or solving supposedly “rational” problems, but trying to engage my imagination or act without “purpose” feels unnatural, almost uncomfortable.

    Thank you for your insight as always.

    Bill wrote on August 6th, 2011
  9. I often am accused of having Peter Pan Syndrome. Nice to know I’m not alone. FYI, I’m a fully functioning adult and practically retired at 29 yrs old.

    Danny wrote on August 7th, 2011
  10. I never stopped being a kid; I skateboard and play video games/board games/puzzles all day almost every day.

    Robert wrote on August 8th, 2011
  11. This is why I love being short. I’m 20 yet I always feel like a kid. I love running around playing airsoft, handball, swimming in the ocean when there’s big waves, sliding on the wet grass at night when the sprinklers go on or even just having a catch. A lot of my friends like to just drink at night but I think that gets boring night after night. I’m trying to get them on my level, sometimes I just wanna move!

    Jimmy wrote on August 8th, 2011
  12. An important reminder about what’s important in life. Boy am I feeling stressed out. Even on vacation I can be so involved in “relaxing” that I forget to “play”

    Here’s more –

    Ron Lavine wrote on August 8th, 2011
  13. Hey Mark, great presentation at AHS on Saturday! I took it to heart on Sunday. I found myself in a pool with a bunch of kids. There’s nothing like kids to teach how to play. It was refreshing and helped me to recover from two days of AHS. Hopefully we will see you present at future AHS events.

    Gregory L. Johnson wrote on August 8th, 2011
  14. Thanks for interesting article on playing. I never really thought about playing until reading your article.

    I remember growing up running around the neighborhood playing all kinds of games we made up and rules.

    Unfortunately at some age we lose that fun atmosphere of playing just to play. It would be great if we could do more playing without being looked at as weird. Although we do get that joy when playing with our kids, but it still is not quite the same.

    I will have to see how I can add play into my life again.


    Tina wrote on August 10th, 2011
  15. Hi Mark,
    I came across this video ( )and as you consider yourself as an expert of play you might enjoy these specimens of Grok in action

    Arndt wrote on August 29th, 2011
  16. Ventured into play again after a painful mishap a week ago. My daughter and I bodyroll raced down a grassy hill. I’m sure the people at the park were like, WTF seeing this grown woman rolling down a hill, legs flying, cracking up laughing. Of course I was practically crawling back to my car. Nothing lets you know how old you are when you try to play hard like a 4 year old!

    Kia wrote on October 8th, 2011

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