Why Play More

Why We Should Play More

Trying to define play with precision produces some fuzzy boundaries to the definition. There are physical and mental aspects to play, and much of its value comes from what a person brings in and takes out of it. This entering and exiting from play has given rise to a popular metaphor that play is like a sacred space or a magic circle.

Why We Should Play More

By: Nick Soleyn, PBC, Editor in Chief

“The animal works, when a privation is the motor of its activity, and it plays when the plenitude of force is this motor, when an exuberant life is excited to action.” – (Schiller, Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, 1795)

Play, which is all-pervasive to us as children, is often criticized when we are adults as frivolous or a waste of time, as if crossing the threshold to becoming productive members of society also transforms us to fit like puzzle pieces into predefined roles and expectations. I enjoy grappling, which to the observer is little more than play-fighting with other grown adults. My friends who climb, shoot, run, bike, and lift weights would all agree that while these things aren’t necessary to our jobs or societal roles, they are, nonetheless, indispensable to health, sanity, and quality of life. Those who study play would agree.

The complexities of human relationships and our roles in society demand that we engage a number of pathways of experience to achieve goals near the top of the Hierarchy of Needs, such as self-realization. Play is one particular pathway of experience that helps us comprehend ourselves, our capabilities, and the courses of action available to us. As Thomas S. Henricks, author of Play and the Human Condition, writes, “To be fully human is to pursue all of these avenues of expression and to comprehend the benefits—and the limitations—of each” (Henricks 2020).

What is Play?

The idea of play is pretty simple in general terms. We know when we are playing a game or a sport or doing something just for fun. Trying to define play with precision, however, produces some fuzzy boundaries to the definition. There are physical and mental aspects to play, and much of its value comes from what a person brings in and takes out of it. This entering and exiting from play has given rise to a popular metaphor that play is like a sacred space or a magic circle.

“All play moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the ‘consecrated spot’ cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.” (Huizinga 1938, 10)

Inside the circle, there are costumes and customs, skills and rules, and a field of play. On the outside looking in, non-players may think these things are silly. For the players, they lend reality “a hypothetical, as-if quality” (Henricks 2020).

Where Does Play Come From?

Relatively few species of animals play (Pellegrini 1995). The importance of play has many possible explanations, from skill development to maturation. The quote at the beginning of the article comes from one theory of play called the surplus theory. The surplus theory goes something like this: Humans used to hunt and gather only to subsist and procreate. Then we developed agriculture. Agriculture led to a surplus of food, which led to increases in population, political organization, specialization among individuals, further technological change, and leisure. The surplus theory has been thoroughly challenged both by the study of subsistence cultures and by modern observations (Chick 2018).

If the surplus theory were correct, we should be burdened by an overabundance of free time. Instead, technological societies tend to devalue recreation and free time as inefficient. Very often, the more technologically complex a culture becomes, the less free time people feel free to take.

Rather than being the product of too much free time, play has been a constant in human history:

“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” (Shen, Chick, and Pitas 2017).

As a counter to the surplus of energy, there is an idea that play aids our brain-body connection and the cognitive mapping that helps us navigate unpredictable situations and relationships. People have more abstract conceptions of their environments than other species. Most species have a kind of biological pre-programming. Prey animals, for example, know that they are prey animals and act accordingly. Humans have memories of past events that influence how they react to present situations. They also “project themselves into future scenarios” and “ponder present-time circumstances that lie outside their perceptual surround” (Henricks 2020). And they are aware that they do these things (Id.). Play helps us extrapolate from a controlled environment to possible future scenarios, building competence as related to the games or sports we play.

Play, for Adults

The flexible behaviors we learn from play and other “pathways of experience” may have originated as a survival teaching tool, but it may also fulfill pursuits like self-efficacy and self-realization, improving one’s overall satisfaction and quality of life. According to Henricks, “When we play, we feel ourselves reawakening from our ordinary lives, not just in terms that we create and administer cognitively but also as the amazed inhabitants of our surging bodies . . . Involvement in such activity produces more than intellectual discernment. It leads to excitement, fun, and, perhaps in its most sublime manifestations, joy” (Henricks 2020).

As an adult, it can be difficult to find sports that you just do for fun. The idea of play becomes a logistical problem. Organizing a group of adults in your social circles to do anything outside of family or work time can be frustrating and nearly impossible. Additionally, some critics of adult play take a similar view, arguing that some people look for outlets because “adulting is hard.” Free time is the treasure of those unendowed with responsibility and the reward for efficiency. It shouldn’t be treated lightly or squandered with things that don’t make you better in some way. That’s the argument, at least.

The question is whether play is a valuable use of your time, because playtime has costs, after all. If our early ancestors were playing, they were “wasting time and energy, causing injury, and reducing vigilance that may open playing individuals to predation” (Shen, Chick, and Pitas 2017).

The costs of play can also be seen as an indication of its importance. “[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” (Shen, Chick, and Pitas 2017). Some researchers are studying whether play improves adaptability in adulthood. They believe that playfulness in parents leads to adaptability in children as they become young adults. If it helps young people become better-adapted members of society, then they suggest that playfulness begets adaptability, something both individually and socially beneficial.

Leisure also plays a critical role in cultural evolution. Free time allows for innovation and improvement. Aside from the physical benefits of non-competitive sports and exercise, they provide more generalized interactions with your fellow humans and your environment. Play and physical training help combat the tendency toward disuse in society. And trying to expand your interactions through games and sports can help remedy a lack of connection with other people.

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.


Chick, Garry. 2018. “Leisure and Recreation, Anthropological Study Of.” In The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology, edited by Hilary Callan, 1st ed., 1–8. Wiley. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118924396.wbiea2274.

Henricks, Thomas. 2020. “Play Studies: A Brief History.” American Journal of Play, Winter, 12 (2): 114–15.

Pellegrini, Anthony. 1995. The Future of Play Theory: A Multidisciplinary Inquiry into the Contributions of Brian Sutton-Smith. SUNY Press.

Schiller, Friedrich. 1795. “Letters Upon The Aesthetic Education of Man,” 44.

Shen, Xiangyou, Garry Chick, and Nicholas A. Pitas. 2017. “From Playful Parents to Adaptable Children: A Structural Equation Model of the Relationships between Playfulness and Adaptability among Young Adults and Their Parents.” International Journal of Play 6 (3): 244–54. https://doi.org/10.1080/21594937.2017.1382983.



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