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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80 thoughts on “The Lost Art of Play: Reclaiming a Primal Tradition”

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  1. fortunately I ‘play’ several times a week. I take a step aerobics class that is like playing to me. It is kind of like ‘hop scotch’. Also I play tennis once or twice a week. Played last night as a matter of fact

  2. Ugh I was just going to write about this next week! That’s the second time Mark’s done this to me.

    “Talk of playtime for adults often garners eye rolls and claims of self-indulgence.”

    This is so true. I am pretty much considered an immature kid raising a kid by many in my neighborhood because I am so playfull, active, and silly. Who’s the one climbing all the trees at the park? Not the kids usually. It’s me!

    1. Hi Peggy! Write about it anyway, I am always looking forward to your blogs 🙂

  3. Yay for play!

    I constantly feel down when I come home from work. I never want to do anything more strenuous than flop on the couch and go to sleep.
    Yesterday after work was one of those flop on the couch days. No energy whatsoever. Finally I gave up and went to bed at 6:30pm.
    Well, my 11 month old beagle decided it was play time. She jumped on and off the bed a billion times, barking the whole way up and down. Chased her tail and grabbed 5 different toys to shove into my face and then wanted to play tag/wrestle.
    Before I knew it I was laughing so hard at that weird dog, and was up getting her leash to go for a walk.

    Play is a great thing!

    1. Wow, I read that and completely missed the word “beagle” and was very confused for a moment. 🙂

      Seriously though, this is probably a demonstrative example of why people with pets are generally happier and healthier; having a pet encourages play for adults in a way that society in general doesn’t look at with disdain.

  4. There is nothing more fun and playful than a spontaneous pillow fight in my living room with my 4 year old. It usually consists of us chasing each other around the house, hitting with pillows [sometimes one in each hand], throwing pillows, or wrestling to get control of the ‘good’ pillows. Sometimes we play a little too hard and bumps and bruises result, but we always end with laughter and my son begging for more.

  5. Does play have to be physical? At my job we, sadly, spend most of our time at our desks. We’re all a lot of smart, nerdy people, though, who apparently need mental stimulation beyond the job. At the drop of a hat, we will send around department-wide email chains of jokes, internet memes, the latest popular youtube cat videos, photoshop renderings of people in the office, etc etc etc. Perhaps this is engaging our brains in a similar way to play. I certainly feel a lot more cheerful and connected with my coworkers after a particularly good thread sends me to the giggles.

    1. Hey, I don’t think play has to be just Physical… Although I do “play” in the physical sense, I am a bit of a geek and get together with friends to play table-top rpg games… specifically, dungeons and dragons. It is a fantastic way to immerse yourself in an alternate reality and to get some of that alternating “risk” and “relief”. Any other game could be just as fun. Risk, Settlers of Cattan, even chess or crib. As long as it’s not a computer game, I think.

  6. I play with my kids everyday. I don’t mean I take them to the playground, I mean I PLAY. I love it. I’m always the biggest kid wherever I go with my 3 boys. And I’d have to say that free form play is the basis, foundation, of my exercise.

  7. Hate to be the harbinger of bad (good?) news, Mark, but Thursday’s not hump-day. Well, not the kind of hump I think you were referencing, anyway. 😉

    Re: the article, I consider play to be third only to “eat plenty plants and animals” and “move frequently at a slow pace.” The three together are the perfect Primal triumvirate. It’s not that the other aspects or laws aren’t important, I just don’t feel them to be as fundamental or rudimentary. (I guess I’d have to say that LHT ties with second or third, though.)

    Great article, anyway, and there’s no better time for play than in the summer. Hope everyone’s enjoying theirs!

  8. THIS IS GREAT: “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?” This is so eloquent and sums up perfectly why I love rock climbing and mountain biking, in particular. A big part of play for me is being outside. Summer is my time to let ‘er rip…rode my mt bike down mt ashland monday, swam 2.3 miles in a high mountain lake near here tuesday, caught a steelhead in the rogue river last night, going climbing tomorrow, then heading to central oregon for 4 days of fly fishing and mtn biking, following on the heels of 3 weeks in colorado and utah, exploring slot canyons, fishing, riding my bike, hiking, swimming, climbing. Indulgent? Sure!

  9. I read this book a while back and was struck by a (perhaps obvious) sad fact – it seems that as adults, many people have to ‘relearn’ how to play. Seems silly when you think about it, because it’s something that is so ingrained in children, but societal pressures, plus the feeling of familiarity (as things become more familiar, they become less novel and perhaps more ‘boring’?) seem to lead adults to seek out passive entertainment as opposed to active entertainment. After all, adults still need the escape, they just get to it differently.

    Of course, I think that mixing physical activity with that escape is much more enjoyable and satisfying than not.

  10. My husband and I find time to play outdoors as much as possible. Hiking, rock hounding, anything. We call it recharging our batteries, and it’s very important to our mental well being.

  11. I have never been happier then when I am playing outside with my daughter. She comes up with the best games and we usually end up dog tired after several hours of running around. I have another on the way and it will be even more fun coming up with new games to play with her. I have always been the adult that loves to play and I have to cajole others to stop out and have fun. I have never understood that mindset but they are the ones missing out not me.

  12. I don’t get a lot of play because I have no one to play with. I try to incorporate random moments of fun into my days though and it does help keep me in a positive mood. Occasionally at home if I’m just lazing around I’ll take a minute to do a few somersaults or rolls on the carpet and jump over various things in various ways. Usually when going up the stairs I run, jump, or stretch my forward leg as much as possible and try to go slow without falling backwards (hasn’t happened yet). Basically for fun I just try to be acrobatic and make my movements flow. I also climb. There’s a steep embankment I sometimes sprint at and try to sprint up, grabbing onto a tree growing out of the side and then slowly walking/climbing the rest of the way once I lose momentum.

  13. Mark I love these threads where you take the idea and just let it run where it will.

    I’m just beginning to understand why Play has been the hardest thing for me – now I just have to figure out a way to re-remember because I did love it once, I know that much!

  14. We take play very seriously in our house! Of course with two little boys (4 & 18mo) everything is playing. I think that’s where the phrase “kids keep ya young” comes from. We are alway making up games….like the lastest “Pillow Slam” that’s what the 4 yr old named it. It’s simple and usually involves everyone with a pillow and runnig around out too small living room bumping into each other…with the occasional pillow launched to take out some ones feet. In then end everyone is laughing their butts off and feeling great!

  15. I think play takes many forms as adults. And doesn’t always look like traditional ‘play’ but is an adult form fulfilling a similar function. A lot of child’s play (most?) is skill building and practice that we use for real as adults.

    As a child I would run ‘hotels’ and ‘hospitals’ with my dolls and teddies. Now I run a home with kids and a husband. That’s my main function in life and I consider it play most of the time.

    Yesterday I was doing a jigsaw with my kid, I was sorting the pieces while he put them together and it reminded me how I would sort my books in my bedroom over and over as a child. We were both perfectly content in our roles and bonding well as a result.

    So I don’t think play needs to be whooping it up and physical all the time. There’s a time, place and need for that of course. But personalities come into play and it can be just as rewarding to be quieter and less active.

  16. Just last night while I was running barefoot, some people were playing volleyball so I jumped in and ended up playing for almost three hours! Slept like a baby after that.

  17. Really fantastic article, Mark. Really fantastic.

    I try to make time to play with my three year old boys… You are right though that when they are younger it always seems difficult to FIND time for anything but basic survival…

    I want time to play with not just my boys…I want time to play with my wife, my newborn twin daughters…my friends… It is exceptionally difficult to convince the grownups in my life that this sort of ‘indulgence’ is quite the opposite. The indulgence is a necessity for balance.

  18. Play is tough for me–it’s the hardest part of the Primal Plan. I’m not sure why. It makes me feel guilty and self-conscious, at least at first . . . which isn’t rational. But there you go.

    I also suspect it’s the most *important* part of the plan for me, the part that really has the opportunity to change my life. So thanks, Mark, for the post; and thanks, everyone else, for all the inspiration. It’s like a manual on “how to have fun.”

    Going off to have fun now . . .

  19. “Talk of playtime for adults often garners eye rolls and claims of self-indulgence.”

    Don’t I know it! I’ve been working for a year and a half to try & get a play class going for adults at a RECenter. It is really, really, really, really, really hard to get anyone to even try the class or if they do try it, to let loose enough to enjoy themselves. We’re all stuck in a box of what “adult” means and play is not part of that. Heck! I can’t even get my husband to let go enough to play for the sake of playing. These are my two favorite comics though…

    Interesting Life:

      1. EFF YEAH FOURSQUARE!!! ZOMG I love the sound the balls make when they bounce, and all the tricky layered upon layered rules and techniques we made up as kids. I would LOOOVE to do that again!

      2. yeah, it’s amazing how much people still have fun with even a game of Tag! or catch or keep-away for that matter. But sadly people get ooged out by touching other people or being silly or making noises. Will keep trying to fight the good fight. : )

  20. My “Primal” partner is my dog Cocoa. We like to wrestle, play tug of war, and chase each other around the house. We also like getting the cat all riled up every once in a while.

  21. such a well-written, thoughtful post. sometimes, your topics go beyond primal and to the heart of somthing deeper. Well played!

  22. Animanarchy, I too don’t have kids or anyone else to play with. However I make an effort to play with myself (if you get my drift) at least once every day. I used to schedule my “playtime” for 11.30pm but after reading this post I think I will do it more spontaneously.

    “It’s the feeling of risk and power, of silliness and absurdity, of the slight, alternating edges of (benign) fear and ecstatic relief.”

    Amen, brother!

  23. That is exactly why I am all unapologetic when it comes to my trampoline.

    “YES, I have a giant trampoline in my backyard. NO, I do not have kids. Are you saying you don’t ever rock a trampoline? Looked longingly at a bouncy house? Never jumped up and down on a bed?”

  24. I think it’s true that play does not have to always be physical. For example, I love to sit down with a book – I find it so relaxing, surely that is a form of play.

    I get most of my play with my horse – sometimes goal-oriented training, sometimes just a lazy ride in the forest or a swim in the pond. We only do what makes us feel good. Of course, there’s also the kind of play I get with my husband, but we won’t go there…

  25. This post dug up childhood memories of playing, particularly Capture the Flag… the exhilaration of eluding being caught and successfully capturing the flag was better than anything. I pursue various hobbies and outdoor activities, but I havent experienced that feeling in a loooong time

    1. Then go organize a game of it! : ) Seriously. It just takes one person inviting other people to get something like that to happen.

  26. When I grew up I was often shut out of games, picked last for teams or was just never made to feel that welcome during play… I had social anxiety disorder until I was 18… nuff said 😛

    1. Steve–ME TOO!! I basically still feel that “team sports = a way to get yelled at” or at the very least “a surefire way to let other people down.” Makes it hard to get out of the house and go do it, that’s for sure. I have to talk myself into it every single time.

      Of course there are lots of other ways to play. But if you’re like me, part of you thinks you *have* to do a “sport,” because part of you thinks you failed at it as a kid . . . . (The rest of me always decided it was easier and more pleasant to lounge in the shade and read, but that’s another story).

      The solution turned out to be trying games that are completely new to me, on teams where most players are also beginners. (Here in MN that meant broomball, but it almost doesn’t matter, as long as there’s a beginner’s league). Grown-ups are usually pretty friendly on the field, unlike middle-schoolers. No one has yelled at me so far ;).

      Anyway, good luck.

  27. What about if people have debilitating knee injuries? My husband has that….it makes engaging in play difficult, as much as he really wants to (he was a soccer player most of his life). In fact, that’s a large part of why he’s no longer very active — it’s not fun anymore. What do you do then?

    1. It seems there are all sorts of sport activities for people in wheelchairs. Racing, basketball, tennis, etc.

      I wonder if he could find others who have similar disabilities who would be willing to form a wheelchair league of some sort. Or maybe the wheelchair bound wouldn’t mind if he played with them.

      How about horse back riding or swimming or we used to play sit down volleyball in a gym with a lower net on rainy days.

      Since he is an ex-jock I am sure some fellow ex-jocks with wrecked knees could get together and brainstorm about an activity they would enjoy.

      Who knows, they may even come up with a totally new sport. They could call their group the Wrecked Knee League Of Manly Men.

      I always think there is usually a solution to any problem if you put your mind and energy to it.

      1. I once saw a wheelchair hip-hop dance team. No joke. Great excuse to do cool wheelchair tricks to music.

    2. I’m only 21 with a bit of a debilitating knee injury (at the moment.. I’m hoping it will heal and vanish). I’ve found that the following helps: biking leisurely for long distances since it’s low impact and you use your knees gently, basically greasing the groove. Swimming is also good. Walking on soft land: mud, grass, sand, moss etc.
      I bet consuming lots of bone broth would help.
      And bee pollen and ginseng extract. Those are two natural foods I believe deserve some recognition. They have been my saviours.
      Recently I moved from a city with a lake back to my small town stomping grounds and there’s nowhere to swim here except an overcrowded, over chlorinated outdoor pool, which I have been avoiding. I miss the lake. I could climb out on a fallen tree and then go in the water.. one time the branch I was on broke and I fell in the water. That was fun and gave me the feeling of danger without any risk.
      My knee seems to be healing but once in a while it still bothers me(like this morning – as I really pushed it yesterday with strenuous biking followed by a jog and barefoot sprints.. being primal and being more sensible with my vices has drastically lowered my coffee tolerance). My knees also feel creaky and they crack almost every time I bend them a bit past 90 degrees or squat. I think that’s because a combination of things: too many grain products and processed snacks (SAD, sorta) and not enough primal food growing up, being youthfully and pridefully reckless in football and rugby in high school (after that the cracking started), not having a healthy lifestyle before being primal (vices were tight, and plentiful..), repeated shock to my cartilege by jumping down somewhat high drops for thrills, and then in a short time span: dropping around 25-30 feet by accident when climbing a protruding stone wall and having one of the stones come loose from the mortar (hugging the sides on the way down for friction helped), getting into a fight and hitting both knees on the pavement hard in the process (it was necessary to land on my knees instead of feet after a jumping knee attack in order to look desperate and less skilled so I could keep hitting the guy under the ruse of self defense.. blame adrenaline, and he deserved it, as he started it by trying to choke me out on the sidewalk), and then being trapped in jail for a month in the winter without the opportunity to be out and about while eating an inflammatory, generally awful diet. My right knee was almost constantly irritated. When it finally did almost seem healed a couple months ago, I went to jump over a low concrete wall and accidentally knocked it again. Some luck!

    3. Play in the water! The water supports your knees and reduces the pressure there. Pool, jacuzzi, lake, ocean, whatever. Your knee gets a break but your heart is still pumpin’. Walk in the water (I did say “in”), do some ez kicks, twist at the waist, push down with your arms, hold on to something and just kick. Resist with every movement and you will find a good workout that is easy on the knees.

  28. When I am creating art, playing with whatever I am working with in an intuitive way brings the best results. It is also what keeps me interested in making art.

    When I was a 7-9th grade physical education teacher, the several classes I had that were full of “trouble makers” always loved it when I took them into a modern dance class. It was like they were set free to creatively play.

    It seemed to me that the students who didn’t conform to the structure of school were always the best creative dancers. Or at least the most joyful.

  29. If I may be so bold, I think a lot of the comments here are missing the point of Mark’s article.

    Playing tennis regularly, hiking every week, etc. — those may fit the basic Primal definition of play but I think Mark is talking here about something deeper — something that involves imagination and creativity.

    Peggy and Hayden are a bit more on track, I think, with their suggestion to embrace childlike activities like climbing trees in the park or jumping on the trampoline. A little bit of silliness can go a long way toward opening up the imagination, and once that openness is achieved, the sky’s the limit.

    It definitely doesn’t have to be physical to be play! Consider tabletop roleplaying games, not physical at all, but they involve tremendous imagination and creativity in a social setting. Esepcially when you look at some of the independent games like Burning Wheel or Dogs in the Vineyard, which take a lot of cues from improv theatre. (In fact the independent RPG community’s unofficial motto is “Go play!”)

    For the hiking I could see if you are exploring new territory, trying out different ways of route-finding, etc., that would fit more with what Mark is talking about. Or, peharps, playing a storytelling game with your hiking partner as you walk along, making up stories that take place in the various places you pass along the way…

    Just my two cents though, maybe my interpretation is dead wrong!

  30. I do medieval re-enactment many weekends with the family. We go camping and play hard all weekend and come home and try to wash the grunge off and fall asleep. Sometimes it takes two or three showers to get all the ground in dirt off our feet. Monday morning I am washing mountains of laundry and feeling ‘hung over’ from too much fun. By the next weekend I am ready to do it again.


    1. I just love sword fighting! Ingvildr, your post rocks! Well, OK, we play with dull swords, lots of good armor and sensible rules. Still, its like a living video game. Get klunked on the helmet and its a “death” and a point to the other guy. Block with that shield (presses help this), brandish that sword (pushups do wonders), duck that blow (squats), find your opponent’s weakness and strike! It’s a really fun game to play even if you don’t sword fight. The people who do reinactment are smart, and fun, creative and adventurous. Every primal workout I do, every day, I know I will face another sword fighter in the ring and it motivates me. I find the inner grit to workout every day so I can play better on the weekends! Two great national clubs to look up – and – go for it!

      1. I’ve played in the SCA for the last 15 years. My husband does rapier rather than heavy fighting. With the four year old I’m doing a lot of boffer(padded foam swords) with him. My older children grew up camping and playing hard. I’ve done it for so many years because you get to camp and play with 300 or so friends and enjoy the hands on creativity of crafting your own gear and goodies.

  31. Thank you again for another great article Mark!

    (That’s another book ordered; these authors must love you too. ;))

  32. You get up every morning
    From your ‘larm clock’s warning
    Take the 8:15 into the city
    There’s a whistle up above
    And people pushin’, people shovin’
    And the girls who try to look pretty
    And if your train’s on time
    You can get to work by nine
    And start your slaving job to get your pay
    If you ever get annoyed
    Look at me I’m self-employed
    I love to work at nothing all day
    And I’ll be…playing all the time.

  33. I think I’ve totally forgotten how to play! This is definitely something I need to work on! Thanks for the reminder and background on why!

  34. I just saw an article on unschooling and its about letting kids learn what they want to learn naturally in an unstructured manor. Not sure if its good or bad yet but it seems to me a Grok-ish way to learn. I guess this could be life learning through play. I definitely like the idea as it is well suited to my style of learning and curiosity. Anyway I thought it was interesting at the least.

    1. Unschooling is brilliant! I miss the years we did it. Child-driven activities (as opposed to adult-driven,) following their passions, finding the learning in everything and I mean everything. I was even able to create lessons out of a trip to Chuck E Cheese!

      Even if you don’t unschool as such you can still follow this ethos with kids outside of formal school and adopt it for yourself. It’s about accepting we are hardwired to learn, finding our passions and pursuing them. It is the coolest thing, IMO.

  35. Luckily play isn’t really a problem for me — I teach karate. Several times a day I pull out pool noodles, dodgeballs, or pads and play various games with children and adults. Even sparring feels like play with the right attitude.

    Play for children is often inherently dangerous. As an adult we learn to curb danger; not a bad idea, especially considering how much more serious injury can be to us adults.

    But I advise anyone seriously interested in regular play to call a local martial arts place and give it a try. ^_^

  36. Thanks Mark, now I have a scientific tag – neotite!
    I keep saying I’ll grow up when I get to 30,40,50 …. still not there, having too much fun.
    Having a dog and young niece makes one less conspicuous in this overly “proper and grown-up” society.

  37. I would definitely call my self a kid in an adult body. When I was growing up in Russia, the computers just started to become more popular, but not a lot of children had them. So all the kids mostly played outside, and the elderly had their own gathering in the evening in our neighborhood. The life was more playful than it is right now. Now, when I travel back home, I never see children play outside, everyone is at home on their computers.
    But it is a such an important part of our life, to connect and play with others face to face.
    This post made me really happy :). Thanks Mark

  38. 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 🙂

  39. 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.

  40. 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?

    1. 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”!

  41. 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!

  42. 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!

  43. 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!

  44. 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!

  45. 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.

  46. 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.

  47. I never stopped being a kid; I skateboard and play video games/board games/puzzles all day almost every day.

  48. 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!

  49. 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.

  50. 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.


  51. 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!

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