"Necessity may be the mother of invention, but play is certainly the father.”
-Roger Von Oech
"We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
-George Bernard Shaw
All of us have heard of the flight-fight response, which describes the rapid mobilization of the sympathetic nervous system in response to a threat. We either do battle or run away in order to avoid more serious harm. The opposite side of the coin, activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, is often known as the rest-and-digest response. This is when our body is absorbing nutrients, sleeping, and repairing.
Is there a balanced blend of the two sides of the nervous system, though? Does it also have a hip moniker? Activated calm, fierce serenity, or flow state? Let's stick with the rhyming scheme and call it stay-and-play.
Stay-and play (which we will just call play henceforth) is a relatively new area of scientific research, although its importance has been recognized since before the time of Plato. The study of play began with the observation that all mammals have some form of play involved in their early stages of development that usually disappears at maturity, AND this play is essential for maturity to occur.
The process of play is where younglings learn skills, both social and practical, that they will need to survive. The more complex the animal and social structure, the more complex the play. Baby rats wrestle. Baby lions hunt rabbits. Humans have an impressive repertoire. At around the age of three years old, children begin to use games as a way to gauge their connection with other children. They may start with simple concepts (tag, building, catch), but will move onto more complex variations (hide and seek, playing house, sports) if the partner is willing and competent.
Children who are not allowed to play, or whose play is overly curated by adults, can develop major psychological and social issues later in life. This is largely due to the fact that appropriate play allows the child to hone the balance of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Too much activation can result if anxiety, aggression, or neuroticism. Too little can result in depression, apathy, or victimization.
A healthy balance of winning and losing is also important for play. The goal of playing is not to be undefeated, but to help everyone involved get better at playing. The real winners are looking for ways to make the game more rewarding, which involves sharing their best tips and tricks with others. Likewise, it is also important to learn how to win. No one will stick very long with a game that they keep losing, so healthy play also encourages the player to keep improving.
We are all getting older, but we need not lose our ability to play. One of the best ways to refresh yourself in this skill is to go find a child to interact with for more than just five minutes. Once they are over being shy, they will want to play with you. Start with something simple, and then find out how capable both of you really are. You might just surprise yourself and soon an hour will have gone by like a blur.
Bring the same spirit to the rest of your life. The most extraordinary performers in all areas of life have gotten to such heights out of joy for the work, not dread or boredom. You too can be amongst them. Stay and play a while.