Do You Even Play, Bro?

Whereas most children’s natural state includes some level of playfulness; such things become a choice as adults, and often not a particularly important one at that. Yet, grown men and women are regularly attracted to physical activities purely for play, being motivated by the joy of doing as opposed to competition.

Do You Even play, Bro?

My wife has gotten into the habit of checking me for black eyes when I get home. In the past month, I’ve alternately had both eyes blackened, lost a toenail, and used a makeshift butterfly bandage on my face. Four or five times a week, I am learning and practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (it means “The Gentle Art”). I am aware of how this hobby looks to many of the uninitiated: Adult men and women dress in pajamas and learn how to wrestle, pin, choke, and break each other. We are usually pretty sweaty; the bumps, bruises, and cuts are ubiquitous (though typically minor); and it is physically exhausting most of the time. So, why do we do it? There are some fantastic benefits to it: it is excellent exercise, you learn a physical skill, and there is an opportunity for a competitive sport as an adult (something difficult to find after 30) if you are so inclined. Mostly, though, it’s just really fun.

Play that is all-pervasive in childhood tends to become a tertiary concern of our well-being as adults, coming in somewhere after imperatives like provision and protection. (Read more about The Hierarchy of Needs here). Whereas most children’s natural state includes some level of playfulness; such things become a choice as adults, and often not a particularly important one at that. Yet, grown men and women are regularly attracted to physical activities purely for play, being motivated by the joy of the activity itself as opposed to competition.

Recently, Outside Magazine did a feature and podcast on adult recess leagues. (Read here; Listen here.)  These groups organize games of kickball, dodgeball, ultimate frisbee, cornhole, tetherball, and other playground games. While the games certainly get competitive, it seems as though most adults who seek out and join these leagues are mostly doing it for fun.

The question is whether play is a valuable use of our time. Some critics of the recess leagues argue that this is just a millennial fascination because “adulting is hard.” However, I remember my dad playing pickup cricket games at the local university when I was a kid, and my mom had a regular bowling night. The idea of play isn’t unique to millennials, though perhaps the forms have changed over time. But is there a danger that play takes away from other “adulting” responsibilities. 

Yes. Play has costs. Anthropologists have long recognized the inherent cost of play for humans. One paper lists both costs and risks as “wasting time and energy, causing injury, and reducing vigilance that may open playing individuals to predation[.]” [1] If you are playing, you aren’t doing something else. Therefore, there are limits to the ability to play.

The odd thing is this. In the human historical timeline, play precedes leisure. Leisure is a byproduct of technological advancement. As we have developed technology, we became more efficient with our time. The industrial revolution, in particular, lead to a surplus of time and money for large sections of the population. Leisure, meaning time and activities “not devoted to economically consequential or productive activities, to personal maintenance, or to family obligations such as housework or childcare,” is a relatively recent development. [2] Play, the physical expression of playfulness or physical activity designed to interact with other people and not geared to competition, likely has been around as long as we have been raising children:

“Play is apparently ubiquitous among mammals, occurs in many birds, some reptiles and fish, and has been reported even in invertebrates such as the octopus and a spider. In general, however, the frequency and complexity of play correlates positively with ever more complex behavioral repertoires in animals.” [1]

The prevalence of play suggests a necessary tradeoff that is beneficial to physical and cultural development.

The costs of play, then, can also be seen as an indication of its importance, more like a necessary investment and evidence of its value to the culture. “[play] has been ascribed numerous positive functions to justify the high investment it entails…. These include emotional, physical, and cognitive development such as stress coping, problem-solving, and skill development as well as predation and predator avoidance.” (Id.) Some researches posit and are studying whether play improves adaptability in adulthood. They believe that playfulness in parents leads to playfulness in young adults. If this also helps those young people become better-adapted members of society, then they suggest that playfulness begets adaptability, something both individual and socially beneficial.

Regardless of whether play is hardwired into us, we do know a few things. One of the primary principles in any human action is the expenditure of the least amount of effort to accomplish a task. “A person solving his immediate problem will view these against the background of his future problems, as estimated by himself.” Depending entirely on one’s own interpretation of work and his environment, a person will try to minimize his probable rate of work expenditure—as he perceives it. “Disuse” in modern society is a problem. (Read more here: “Fighting Against the Crowd and the Principle of Least Effort.”) 

As is the lack of connection with other people. On the Barbell Logic Podcast, Dr. David Puder has discussed the importance of empathy and connection in workplace and family relationships. He’s challenged us to actively form connections with other people, offering practical tips for improving your empathy and connection with others. (Listen to the Podcast “The Science of Connection with Dr. David Puder” here.)

A strong argument can be made that the anthropological significance of play contributes to the notion that we are healthier when we have meaningful connections. If we start to see the costs of play as too high, perhaps we need to examine not the play itself, but the culture that has grown up to make play undesirable. In the meantime, get outside, play, and be human. It’s good for you, even if you get a few scrapes, bumps, and bruises. 

[1] Xingyou Shen, Garry Chick, Nick Pitas, “From playful parents to adaptable children: a structural equation model of the relationships between playfulness and adaptability among young adults and their parents” (available at DOI: 10.1080/21594937.2017.1382983)

[2] Garry Chick, “Leisure and Recreation, Anthropological Study of” International Encyclopedia of Anthropology (2018)



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