I was raised with a strong work ethic: we worked hard and dealt with what needed to be done without letting things pile up. I am grateful for that and it has served me well in my life. The need to be productive became a huge driver in my life. What could possibly be wrong with productivity? Seems our society is set up to reward productivity in fact. So what did I lose when that became my focal point?

I lost my spontaneity, my playfulness, and even my ability to play. Play became something I did only if all the chores and tasks and important things had been attended to. And of course the chores and tasks are never complete. So play had faded from my life.

All of that changed almost a decade ago when I chanced upon the work of Dr. Stuart Brown (https://www.ted.com/talks/stuart_brown_says_play_is_more_than_fun_it_s_vital and http://www.nifplay.org/ ). This is the man who caught my attention by saying that the “by-products of the playful life” are “empathy and trust and compassion.” And this one stopped my fully in my tracks:

The opposite of play is not work it is depression.

Stuart Brown is an American psychiatrist who, in 1966, was tasked with doing a post mortem assessment of the largest mass murderer in the US at the time. Everyone wanted to know what had motivated this man to commit such a heinous crime. The team looked at toxicological reports and took a history of his life. One thing stood out to Stuart Brown and piqued his curiosity: this man had a pronounced absence of play in his life, even from infancy. Stuart Brown went on to analyze homicidal men in the Texas prison system and found that 90% of them had had bizarre, absent, deficient or seriously deviant play histories (for a more fulsome discussion see the excellent interview with Krista Tippet at On Being: https://onbeing.org/programs/stuart-brown-play-spirit-and-character/ ).

Stuart Brown has come to the conclusion that play not only protects us from becoming homicidal but it offers us a great deal more besides. He believes that play is critical to our

  • interpersonal skills
  • empathy
  • adaptability
  • problem-solving
  • resilience and ability to cope with stress
  • imagination
  • flexibility
  • self-regulation
  • awareness of our own and others’ emotions
  • ability to make sense of our world

In short, he says that

The basis of human trust is established through play signals.

I recently offered a workshop on play. We looked at the eight types of play that Stuart Brown and others have identified:

Colleen Stevenson Visual counselling
The Eight Types of Play as identified by Stuart Brown and others

Looking at each of these types of play in children, many of us can relate our own memories of ways we played, people we played with and special memories we have of certain play, certain places we played, certain feelings we experienced when playing.

But did we keep playing? Did play taper off in our lives and if so, when? Did it come back into out lives?

I created a quick play history of my life to offer as an example for the workshop:

Visual Counselling and coaching and mapping Colleen Stevenson
Contact me for visual counselling if you want to map out your own play history or other visual exploration.

I noticed a sadness as I saw the volume and diversity of play diminishing as I got older. And then I noticed how it has changed for me recently and how I am feeling good about that. And I want to bring even more play into my life! I want a robust play life! I think perhaps it might be just as important to my health and wellbeing as my vitamins and exercise regime.

So where in your life do you play?

Are there ways you used to play but have stopped?

What do you miss about that glorious feeling of play – where you lose track of time, you forget to be self-conscious and you do it for the love of it not for some end product ?

Who would you feel safe to play with now?

What type of play calls to you now?