The Definitive Guide to Play

I’ve mentioned the Primal concept of play quite a bit recently, and I figured I should clarify what I mean with a comprehensive post.

But Mark! A Definitive Guide to something that is essentially formless, spontaneous, and boundless? Surely you jest!

Before you scoff, consider the current status of play in our society. Think about where “play” as a concept has been relegated – to the “important but ultimately expendable” category.  Roving bands of children out for kicks and innocent thrills who answer only to the streetlights are absent, replaced by Purel-soaked kids being bused to their next “play date.” Working men and women accumulate enough stress for a dozen Groks in the course of a week, putting in overtime and working weekends, only to collapse on the couch in front of the TV once they get home. If they’re lucky, they’ll get a few hours a week on the treadmill or out in the yard with the kids or the dog. When they finally manage to get it, people enjoy play (it is fun, after all), but – whether it’s our Puritan past summoning hidden guilt at the thought of pleasure for pleasure’s sake or the consumerist mentality pushing us to work, work, work – there’s always “real life” calling and interrupting the fun. Pure play has become more of a luxury nowadays or, even worse, is considered to be “kids’ stuff.” But when your kids can’t even play without checking their schedules first, you know there’s a serious problem.

We didn’t always have this problem. In fact, for tens of thousands of years, play was a vital component of communal living and social cohesion among our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Once the kill had been made, or the day’s supply of roots, shoots, nuts and leaves had been gathered, Grok played. No commutes. No stopping at the grocery store for a bouquet of roses for an angry spouse. No rushing to make the bank before it closes. The kids would scamper around, chasing each other. Adults might wrestle, race, have throwing contests, or even just hang out and groom each other. This was pure, unadulterated leisure time, and plenty of it. Play wasn’t just about having fun (though that was a big part of it); it also had practical benefits. Groks that played together formed bonds, strong social ties that strengthened the collective power and safety of the tribe.

Modern hunter gatherers, like the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, work far fewer hours than the modern 40-plus-hours a week worker while enjoying far more leisure time. Despite this gap, one could consider the !Kung more affluent than the average city dweller, simply because they desire and require less material wealth than we do. We can surmise that Grok, too, lived in what anthropologist Marshall Sahlins calls the “original affluent society,” where his desires were mostly limited to food, shelter, companionship, and community, and where those desires were almost always met. Compare that to the time and focus it takes to achieve our desires (new car, condo, grad school tuition, new computer), and it becomes obvious that Grok lived a relatively stress-free life with plenty of playtime.

You need to realize that replicating the stress (or lack thereof) levels of Grok matters almost as much as emulating his diet and fitness. There’s a very real link between exterior stress (especially the “artificial” stress we “civilized” folks exert on ourselves) and disease, and play can be a great way to mitigate its effects.

So we see that this modern aura of expendability surrounding play actually makes getting it more necessary – and more difficult – than ever. We need to unwind from all the stress in our lives, just as Grok unwound from the stress of his, especially when our stress is artificial and arguably more pernicious. What better way than incorporating a little unstructured, endorphin-boosting play in our lives?

Other Benefits

Besides its stress-reducing, social qualities, play has other quantifiable benefits. A New Zealand study showed that workers were 82% more productive following a vacation, and their sleep habits were better. Australian researchers suggested that frequent breaks for sedentary workers results in better weight control and improved triglyceride and blood glucose numbers. The New York Times recently covered a study showing that increasing leisure activities improves immune function faster than stress can suppress it. It seems like the more you reduce stress, the more easily everything else falls into place – no more stress eating, better focus at work, nothing weighing on your mind before bed. Then there’s the fact that playing is simply fun and enjoyable. Isn’t quality of life about health and happiness?

How to Do It

Specific instructions for an unstructured activity are impossible (and counterproductive), but there is a basic guideline: anything goes. That’s about all I can tell you. Any further direction from me or anyone else as to how, what, and when would compromise the spontaneous nature of true play. It’s important to discover your own particular brand of play. Indeed, I think the desire for active leisure is hardwired into our genetics (just look at the benefits), only it’s often smothered by the rigors and pressures of contemporary adulthood.

Play can take many forms. For most of us, we’ll naturally gravitate toward something we enjoy and excel at. I like playing Ultimate Frisbee for my weekly “allotment,” because it’s a fun way to exert myself and I’m pretty good at it. You might go grab a few games of pickup basketball or beach volleyball. Anything works. And although many people lead relatively sedentary work lives (thus making active play a necessity), those of you who live an active daily lifestyle might find pleasure in simply reading or taking in a movie.

The point is, play is meant to address a deficiency in your life. Most of us are stuck inside for too long and the burst of joyous outdoor activity is a counterbalance to that; for those who get plenty of exercise throughout the course of a normal day, relaxing leisure time could be the answer. The important thing is to take the edge off, so make the decision right now to incorporate play into your healthy lifestyle.

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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53 thoughts on “The Definitive Guide to Play”

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  1. Mark,

    great article. I am lucky to have play come pretty easy, as I have a two year old who loves any and all play. I would take any suggestions on different games to play with a toddler, play that causes her to think more than the random sillyness we often engage in.

    Also, I am looking forward to paddle boarding and surfing in Hawaii for a few weeks in July. I may try to incorporate paddle boarding into beach workouts; something like squat 50x, paddle 400m – 5 rounds for time. I have sandbags to use as well.

    Thanks again for another great article.


  2. I think anything that promotes laughter is an excellent choice for leisure time. The sillier, the better! Most adults don’t laugh much and this is a big indication of how little leisure time most of us get.

    Playing a sport is great too (I love sports), but it’s easy to take it too seriously.

    I’m not so sure grooming others would be my first choice for a leisure activity. 😉

  3. I love to golf, play racquetball, or play a game of H-O-R-S-E with the grandkids on the backyard hoops court. I grew up spending most of my non-school waking hours playing ball of some sort in the schoolyard across the street from my house. I’ve never stopped!

  4. I think dogs are the perfect playmates. They’re ready to go anytime, anywhere. My dog is awesome, she always makes me laugh 🙂

  5. Hmm.

    I play with material things like motorcycles and firearms. I gravitate to and excel & these 🙂

  6. There can be little argument against the notion that “play” is a social behavior – even when done solitarily – and doesn’t mean “doing whatever you want.” Broad, socially-constrained rules about what constitutes “play” is practically self-evident.

    There seems to be a great deal of discussion about just how much free time hunter-gatherers had. Sahlins thesis was a ’60s reaction to the condescending prevalent views of his day about “primitive” societies, and many people including me believe that he somewhat idyllicized the !Kung existence and attempted to make it normative for hunter-gatherers. Other hunter-gatherers such as the pre-horse Plains Indians spent most of their time trying to find and process food.

    That said, I believe you offer sensible, ancient, “primal” guidelines for play. I’m going outside to play now!

  7. I suck at play. I fail massively to get any kind of play at all. I can’t even bring mself to play board games, and juggling just depresses me. The very idea of play stresses me out, and I have NO IDEA how to go about it! D’oh.

    1. Don’t worry about sucking, just do it. Just run around and act like a idiot. You’d be surprised at how liberating it is.

      You might have a problem of caring what other people think? If so, work on getting rid of that. Who gives a crap what random people think.

    2. Hum any old note and shake your face as hard as you can for a couple seconds. Repeat. There. You’ve taken an important first step.

    3. I like to get dizzy.

      Spin around the room or shake your head around… sounds weird… but it’s a nice feeling. (:

    4. don’t forget dancing/skipping around to a song in your head! Crank up some techno & dance like you just don’t care!

      If you have someone else around, don’t forget good old tickle-fights! Or pillow fights, or water fights…

      another one of my favourites when I’m “in the city” is if I happen upon people playing frisbee in a park, I just tell them to start tossing my way. And nothing beats a good roll down a grassy hill.

      It’s all good fun and we NEVER outgrow it.

    5. When is the last time you tried to do the monkey bars? For me, they are a great reason to stop at a park and inevitably lead to what else can I climb on, over, around or under.

  8. This is especially important if work and play are separate things for you. It gives the very necessary opportunity to recharge, both physically and mentally.

  9. I love ping pong (there’s a table at Hillel just off campus) and afternoon-delight with the wife (it works well anytime day or night). I play a lot with my 3.5 year old. She loves to dance and it’s amazing how much energy it takes just to keep up with her!

    As a kid, every spare moment was spent either reading or playing/exploring. I love board games, video games, Dungeons & Dragons (with dice, not on the computer), bowling/pool, swimming, hiking or just nosing around where I “shouldn’t” be (e.g., climbing a fence into an “empty” field to turn over rocks and look for bugs, or to climb trees). One memorable summer day as a teenager camping in northern Ontario I caught 17 garter snakes in a row (or maybe it was the same one I kept catching, I never could tell). Boy did my hands stink after that! But it was fun! A colleague of mine here at UCLA studies play behavior in children. He studies it from an evolutionary/functional perspective and told me that play has very important adaptive functions for teaching children about the world (physical, social, etc.). Kids who don’t get a lot of play time (i.e., unstructured activity) but instead get a lot of structured instruction or academics actually develop many basic cognitive skills more slowly than kids who get plenty of unstructured play.

  10. Play should not be about competition (as too many mental stressors that come along with that)….just enjoying whatever it is you are doing for the sake of doing it. Hence why I gave up golf long ago….it wasn’t that fun once I got competitive with myself. Now I’d rather just go hit balls at a driving range with no care in the world where they go….and no desire to go play 18 holes.

  11. Mark, have you read “Last Child in the Woods”? I just finished it and it essentially is this, only expanded. Definitely an important read.

    1. Came here to post this, the book is the go-to literature on the importance of unstructured, unsupervised outdoor play, and the lack of it leading to “nature deficit disorder” – ADD, diabetes, so on and so forth. Definitely have to read it.

      (p.s. the author is Richard Louv. )

  12. My home consists of 2 parents, 3 early 20’s kids, and 1 alzheimer + dementia grandmother. It takes all we have sometimes to get through work/school, everyday necessities and taking care of my grandmother. We recently got a Wii with Rock Band (I know Mark… you don’t like Wii).. but, every since we got it, once we put my grandmother to bed, the 5 of us each pick up an instrument (or the microphone for whoever is feeling the most brave) and rock out. We really get into it – it has been a life saver and we all laugh at each other (we’re not musically talented at all) and get to decompress with some family bonding time. Our “play” in the evenings has been a lifesaver the last 2 weeks.

  13. “one could consider the !Kung more affluent than the average city dweller, simply because they desire and require less material wealth than we do.”

    Affluence isn’t things, whether absolute or relative to cultural norms. Affluence is options. Things can provide options, provided the cost does not close off even more. Free time provides options providing one has the resources and health to take advantage of opportunities.

    Play, whether physical or mental opens up more options than most people realize, not only from social bonding and health benefits, but from the open-ended experimentation and learning that is its essence. If it is too structured and fraught with fear and spurious obligations, then it can’t serve that purpose.

    Great article.

  14. Play takes your mind off your problems for awhile and it’s definitely rids stress.
    Play, Laugh, Enjoy Life, it’s a healthy part of us all!

  15. Play, for me , all of 54 years, is in the form of endurance sports. I can “zone out” and relish in the moment. That being said, I just chopped about 5 minutes off my last years PR for a sprint tri. No stress, just enjoying the sweat !

  16. Last night I took my three boys 1,2, and 5years old to the park for about 1 1/2 hours we climb every thing we can played tag, and spent almost 1/2 an hour rolling down a grass hill. If your not sure how to play, just watch kids. When ever we go for walks the older two look for the biggest rocks they can pick up, and then of course see who can throw the furthest. We spend a ton of time digging holes, and as for mind stimulation when we get tired we lay on our backs and look for shapes in the clouds.

    I think all kids are primal to the core, but most parents suck it out of them. My two year olds first words when he was a baby where “outside!” and he said it over and over pounding on the door every morning when he woke up.

    People always look at me funny when they see me jumping in mud puddles, rolling in the grass, or just picking up big rocks to throw with my kids, but I’m a much happier guy than the dad giving his kid heck for getting dirty.

    1. Brad, How awesome you are! so many parents force their kids to “play” soccer,hockey, etc to fulfill their own need to compete. It’s so refreshing that there are still grown-ups out there that remember how to play with & as a kid. I bet you guys love to skip pebbles in the water too…

      1. Thanks! Yeah my kids are young, so the structured sports haven’t come to much yet. I will give them the option to pick one summer, and one winter sport and will encourage them to work hard but only if its what they want to do. Right now hiking and fishing are at the top of my 5year olds list, and yeah my rock skipping record is 16 in one shot. My boys are very focused on seeking out “Good skippers” when we walk along the river bank.

  17. I like to walk, run, now rollerblade, and roll around in the grass…all in the form of play. Oh, and hike.

  18. I love playing and am very good at being silly (I really have no shame), I love playing silly games with my nearly 3 year old niece and doing embarrassing dancing in front of my 13 and 16 year old nieces – anyone remember the birdie dance? The difference in reaction is priceless the little one loves my silliness the older ones roll their eyes at me!

  19. If you say all carbs get turned into sugar whats makes the carbs from berries and fruit any different than grains, if two people get 1500 calories from primal and one gets 500 from grains the other 500 from berries do you think their will be an body composition changes? I don’t.

  20. Play is also such an important social bonding connection too….as playing 2 hours of a 1-on-1 beach whiffle ball game with my 13yr old nephew was more fun than any paid form of entertainment we could of done together (like go to the movies).

  21. LOVE this, Mark.

    I think of the need for a comprehensive description of play in the same vein as gyms–it’s tragic that our culture predisposes us to need them. Play is natural and should come naturally; gyms are unnatural and should not exist ever. Two examples of how we have to overcome years of cultural inculcation in order to live as we were meant to live.

    That said, I don’t play nearly as much as I ought (is that allowed? having a particular amount of time that you *ought* to play? or does that defeat the whole point). Usually play sneaks up on me, when I spontaneously start running and then keep running because it just feels so good.

    But when it comes to communal play that relieves stress and creates strong bonds, I falter. It’s hard to find people willing to play with me.

  22. Kids! Oh yeah, not being able to have any of my own I used to borrow other people’s, I made a great if slightly disreputable uncle and liberate my own Inner Child.

    Probably get arrested nowadays (sigh)

  23. Ultimate is a fine sport but give consideration to another related sport: disc golf, a game that is based on golf except you use a disc similar (way more aerodynamic) to a frisbee. While playing a couple of (2 hrs per round) rounds of disc golf, you will walk up to 4-5 miles and be on your feet the entire time if you so choose. You will activate lots of fast-twitch muscles as you will need these if you want to propel the disc from your hand to baskets as far as 200, 300, 400, or even 500′ away. You can play as an individual or team (doubles). It’s a social game as the only time you shouldn’t talk is when people are putting or throwing.

    To learn more:

    To find a nearby course:

  24. Yeah I prefer basketball whenever the weather permits. Unfortunately it’s getting cold already here so basketball opportunities diminish.

    But – during the winter I like to go to the nearby park (it’s like 10 minutes away) and run around in the snow with my labrador.

    I guess even the cold weather has its upsides. Though I’d rather live in a never ending summer…

  25. I can only encourage people to go outside.
    Primal= outside fun too…go do it!
    Daveman looooves to play outside!

  26. I wanted to thank you for this wonderful read!! I definitely enjoying every small bit of it I have you bookmarked to take a look at new stuff you post…

  27. Great but what about Teens. They are just simply no fun. My daughter thinks I am nuts being primal. She is clever as she has said a potato is a plant.

    Thank god she has no fat girl genetics as she just eats crap, plays with whatsapp, Facebook and recovers from partying. Although she can hip hop dance, maybe i try that. Brake or Break dancing looks like a great core workout and it would be even more fun to do it as a party trick as a white 50 year old. I have done it at parties for a minute or so until my repertoire runs out. The trick is to emphasize you are definitely not serious.

    Finally cannot agree more on sprinting. My time is 14.3 for the 10mm and I hope to win a race next year in the over 45 category. Time to beat 12.67. One advantage with that age is the guys should be clean of roids. Anyone taking roids to win an over 45 years 10om race must be nuts or sorry will have the nut size of an adult squirrel.

    Sorry for my first random contribution. However is that not what primal is about? Being lovely and random.