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The Concept of ‘Play’: It’s not just for Children


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Remember those carefree days of climbing trees and skinning knees? Remember pretending that your bear was a dentist or constructing entire communities out of playmobil or lego? Those were the days, eh? WRONG. These are the days. ‘Play’ is a concept that children have had ownership of for centuries. I’m here to tell you that PLAY IS NOT JUST FOR CHILDREN.

The word ‘play’ has many uses. One might play it by ear, play one’s card close to one’s chest, play with oneself, play ball (hard or otherwise), play fast and loose with the truth, play footsie with the person sitting opposite you, play the fool or play the field. You might think that creating a blog is child’s play or you might go to the theatre to watch the Tennessee Williams play, Streetcar named Desire, in which some talented (or otherwise) woman is to play the part of Blanche Dubois. Judging by this list, the concept of play has connotations with childhood, simplicity, ease and innocence, but also with deceit, secrecy, sex, and the theatre.

The kind of play that interests me is hinted at by Stephen Fry, an English comedy writer, in his autobiography.

Stephen Fry (2010)

“Those who sit in committee meetings rule the world, of course, which is lovely if that is what you want to do, but those who rule the world get so little opportunity to run about and laugh and play in it” (p163)

“My dream partner was a friendly, dreamy, funny young man with whom I could walk, talk, laugh, cuddle and play” (p222)

“The most successful comedy writer I knew lived just up the road…Douglas Adams…I would go round to his house off Upper Street and…ask his wife, Jane, if he might be free to play…In what manner did we play? Scalextric? Trains?…Dressing up?…Douglas was the only person I knew who, like me, owned a Macintosh computer” (p367)

Adult play, of the kind that Fry is talking about, shares much with its childhood counterpart. It is an activity that is free, fluid, exploratory, and untroubled by rules and moral judgement. It is also delightfully unselfconscious, often social, and, above all, FUN. When you were a child, did you play certain games because you thought that you should, or because you thought you would learn something from playing them? Of course you bloody didn’t. If you say that you did, then you’re telling porky pies. We played games to entertain and amuse ourselves, and that is exactly what we do when we engage in adult play.

Adult play can take just about any form. It might involve tweeting yourself into a state of ecstasy, reading books (any books, not just the ones you’re meant to read), watching films, improvising on an instrument, writing a blog post, playing under the covers (alone or with others), playing video games, creating websites, messing about with cooking recipes, styling your hair, creating new words, messing about with grammar rules…the list is endless.

As you might have gleaned from the above list, adult play is often a creative enterprise. The philosopher/psychologist Peter Carruthers (2006) claims that the function of childhood pretend play is creativity. In other words, when children are playing, they are developing their sense of creativity, or practising to be creative adults.

The one thing that stands in the way of adult play is the idea that play is only for children. Children may be allowed to gallop about in a world of their own creation, but adults have important obligations to fulfil, an example to set and a reputation to uphold. Apparently, in order to be an adult, one must be careful, learned, prudent, self-conscious, and in control of oneself, and none of these behavioural traits have anything to do with play. It is this attitude that leads people to write attention-grabbing articles like this one: Attention Spans have dropped from 12 minutes to 5 seconds: How Social Media is ruining our Minds

FEAR NOT! There is little evidence, especially in the above article, to suggest that attention spans have changed at all. What is clear is that the internet and its increasing availability has resulted in more information being available to peruse than there ever has been before. But, as you know, there’s a lot of crap out there. You have to learn to sift, so that you can find the stuff that interests you. The most effective way to sift is to speed-read a large number of articles looking for information that draws you in, rather than reading (in full) a small number of articles.

People sometimes talk about social media as if it were evil. You can use it for evil purposes, and some people do. However, all this talk of evil obscures the fact that social media can be as much a source of adult play as anything else you can think of. When people disparage social media it is usually because it doesn’t agree with their personal taste, rather than anything more sinister.

Underneath all those unsubstantiated remarks about attention spans, you will find an age-old message Adults should be engaging in educational activities that will better their minds, not engaging in a lot of frivolous nonsense. Should teenagers be reading Shakespeare in their spare time instead of going on Twitter? No. The word ‘should’ has no business being in that sentence. It is simply that some teenagers will find it fun to play with Shakespeare of an evening, while others would rather play with Twitter.

So, go out into the world and PLAY. Play to your heart’s content. As long as your play doesn’t involve harming other people, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.

 Word Cited

Carruthers, P. (2006) The Architecture of the Mind: Massive Modularity and the Flexibility of Thought, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Fry, S. (2010) The Fry Chronicles, Penguin Books



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