MP900387316[1]During the recent Thanksgiving holiday, I took ten days off. For a full week and a half I would leave my daily responsibilities behind, I thought.

I was going to rejoice, kick up my heels, and indulge in carefree play! As my holiday started, though, I found myself slogging away with the usual to-do lists.

I raced around madly, updating and pruning files, dealing with a paperwork backlog, and performing the year-end rituals for my psychotherapy practice. No time to waste, I thought. I would accomplish more if I didn’t goof off. Or would I?  Aren’t vacations meant for play?

But what’s the point of spending time on foolishness?  Peter Gray, researcher and psychologist extraordinaire at Boston College, believes that play makes an amazing contribution to our lives. He has written extensively about it and has isolated some important hallmarks.

1. Play is self-chosen and self-directed; players are always free to quit.
2. Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends.
3. Play is guided by mental rules.
4. Play is non-literal, imaginative, marked off in some way from reality.
5. Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.

Now, you can read Peter Gray’s discussion of these five elements of play, and I hope you will, but for now I want you to focus on the benefits of play.

If you believe, as I do, that we are all fundamentally creative and that creative activity is a prerequisite for health, you must acknowledge the importance of play.

Play lets us suspend all the stresses of daily life that confine our imaginations and constrain our intelligence. It permits us to create an imaginary world that we can explore at will.

We can revel in the process of play. If we don’t like it, we have only to stop.

By allowing us to let our heads go limp, play encourages us to mix up events and ideas in unlikely, maybe even foolish, ways. We can be absurd. We can juxtapose things in outrageous combinations and laugh happily at the silly results.

Play opens the door to intuition, gut feelings, humor, and dreams, all aspects of existence to which our brains often give short shrift.

It lets our imaginations make a bold leap without fear for the consequences—no worries. In the process, we often stumble upon fresh insights and clues to problems that until now seemed insoluble.  We also get relief from the tedium of everyday life.

Truth to tell, great ideas and inventions never emerge from our brains unaided. No. Rather they are born from our unfettered musings during “down time.”

Without initial free-form inspiration, we don’t leave the beaten intellectual path. We don’t feel the profound release of the eureka moment when we discover, as if by accident, the answers for which we have been reaching all along.

We carry the creative windfalls back into daily life, where our brains apply them to improve our efficiency and our effectiveness.

Our brains don’t produce our finest ideas. Rather they refine and assess each possibility presented to them.

Our brains are fine analysts. For breakthroughs, however, we must look elsewhere.

Surely play, with its enormous and sometimes surprising benefits, accounts for much of the joy that we experience as solitary beings.  It is responsible for our finest achievements and the delight we take in being alive.  It is, or should be, our guiding spirit, our daemon.

Peter Gray’s new sonnet on the subject will give you a new appreciation for mindfulness (enjoyment of the moment at hand) and for “just fooling around.”


Sonnet to a Playful God

In play we learn to think in ways most clear.
In play with others we resolve our strife.
In play we laugh at what provokes our fear.
In play we soar above our routine life.

In play we learn to follow rules we share,
Assert our selves while making others smile.
In play what’s right is what to all is fair.
In play it’s fun to go the extra mile.

And so to you the god of play we pray,
Please keep our ludic spirit’s liveliness.
As we approach the trials of each day,
Protect us from our over-seriousness.

From dust to dust we all end up the same.
What counts in life is how we play the game.


I offer you these thoughts in the hope that they will persuade you of the value, as the December holidays wrap around us, of taking a seasonal break and indulging your playful self to the full.

Peter Gray’s blog on play appears regularly in Psychology Today. I will not spoil your pleasure in reading his insights, which have given me much information and pleasure over the years.

In case you were wondering, I might add that before Thanksgiving itself arrived last week, I was able to set aside my notes and schedules for some revelry and, yes, play. Thankfully, I now feel rested, energized, and ready for December’s festivities.