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Play, the kale of behavior

Thaddeus Stewart

That’s right, eat it up. Play has so many benefits that one play researcher describes it as the super food of behavior. Gwen Gordon is a pioneer in the field of transpersonal play. She’s worked with the MIT Media Lab, won an Emmy for children’s programming, and is currently producing the documentary “Seriously! A Movie About Play.”

Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with Gwen Gordon.

Play may seem unstructured and a bit silly, but there are ways to define what exactly makes this behavior playful. It must be intrinsically motivated, you must be free to play (it has no utilitarian function), you don’t know the outcome, it is outside your ordinary life and it must be fun.

Young children use play to navigate relationships and ambiguities of social situations. They play rough, joke around, trip on purpose and do so without any sort of goal. But it doesn’t have to -- and shouldn't -- stop at childhood, says Gordon.

According to recent research, there arescientific benefits to play for adults too. Play scientists come from all walks of life, like anthropology or neuroscience, and they’ve found that play benefits us physically, psychologically, emotionally and socially. It’s fundamental to our development. Gordon says without it, we would rigidify.

“It keeps us flexible, open and aware of a wider environment than we would be if we weren’t exploring it. Every species basically does better. When they overly specialize or rigidify they can’t adapt. So we’re more adaptable,” Gordon said.

Adaptability is a key component of a positive affect. Gordon says you’re generally better off when you play, you have less stress, a better immune system- the list goes on and on. Creativity, for example, does not occur without play. Play is a condition for creativity.

Whether you find pleasure in gambling, a soccer game, theater or chess, personal enjoyment is key. You have to be actively involved to benefit and if you want to get the most bang for your buck, complexity is key. Play where you’re physically, socially and intellectually involved (like shared games and games that don’t have winners or losers) can increase your own complexity.

Remember that being playful is an attitude. An attitude that is open and light-hearted. If rules make you feel safer when you play, try a board game, but try not to get too serious. Confusing play with real life can make the whole endeavor very serious very quickly.

Above all, Gordon says to notice the impulse to play and don’t stifle it. Listen to what your body or mind is telling you and feel the joy of play.