Re-discovering Your Play Language
We all used to play. It was our default mode for years! As busy adults however, it’s easy to lose touch with the very essense of play.
We have leisure activities like hiking or watching movies but do you remember that excitement you experienced as a kid when you played? That giddy joy and enthusiasm you felt when engaged in certain activities?
I call that your play language; the activities and circumstances that spark joy and excitement for no logical reason. Thanks to the great work of Dr. Stuart Brown, the founder of The National Institute for Play, I recently re-discovered my play language and infused play into many aspects of my work and life. The result has been profoundly rejouvinating!
Here is a simple process to help you re-discover your play language as well.
Step 1: Brainstorm Your Play History
Recall the many activities you repeatedly and voluntarily turned to during your childhood (reflect on all stages of childhood) and early adulthood and write them down. Below is a list of play activities to help trigger your memory.
Include things like sports, games, pranks, art, silliness, role playing, building, exploring, dancing, social time, and mental games. Anything that was fun, inspiring, exciting, or energizing in a joyful way. You’ll likely end up with a list about 50 items long.
Play Activity Trigger List
- Batting cages
- Boogie boarding
- Building things with your hands
- Coloring books
- Creative art
- Driving range
- Ice skating
- Kite flying
- Long boarding
- Playing an instrument
- Playing with dogs
- Rock climbing
- Roller skating
- Writing for fun
2 – 4 People
- Dance lessons
- Disc golf
- Filming sketches
- Home run derby
- Making music
- Mario Kart 64
- Martial arts
- Ping pong
- Power lifting
- Road trip
- Scavenger hunt
- Wake boarding
- Wii bowling
- Amusement parks
- Beach volleyball
- Co-ed team sports
- Dance parties
- Improv comedy classes
- Ultimate frisbee
- Water balloon fights
- Water polo
- White water rafting
- Wiffle ball
Step 2: Group Similar Play Activities
Now that you have your list, go through your items and notice which ones are similar. For example, here is how some of my play activities fit together:
- Building Blocks
- Train Sets
- Building Forts
- Model Kits
- Making Dams
- Board Games
- Axis and Allies
- Magic the Gathering
Group any activities that feel like they should go together meaning they feel like a similar type of play.
Step 3: Identify the Underlying Play Activity
What was the activity or activities behind each group that you really enjoyed? What was it about those activities that made them so enticing for you?
For example, for my GROUP 1 it was physically building or assembling things that had a purpose. Model cars, forts, dams to hold back a creek. Things that worked or I could play with in the end.
Once you’ve identified the underlying joyful activities, give each group a title (e.g. Building Useful Thing) and also list the skills you enjoyed using when engaged in that activity. Your results should look something like this:
- Building Useful Things (Lego, model kits, forts, etc.)
- ACTIVITY: Physically building or assembling things that had a purpose. Cars, forts, dams, trains. Things that worked or I could play with in the end.
- SKILLS: Building, planning, strategic thinking, seeing patterns, finding pieces, continually improving something, achieving a goal/result.
- Playing Sports (Frisbee, tennis, hockey, etc.)
- ACTIVITY: Any sport from rock climbing to hockey. As long as I’m playing with others for some purpose such as scoring, sending a route, or trying to do trick frisbee catches I’m in!
- SKILLS: Anticipating, responding, strategic thinking, physically engaging in a skillful way, achieving a goal, meeting a challenge with others.
- Srategic Games (Magic the Gathering, Civilization, etc.)
- ACTIVITY: Any game, whether played against a person, computer, or trying to best my own high score that involves a challenging strategy.
- SKILLS: Strategic thinking, planning, seeing patterns, anticipating, responding, achieving a goal/result, meeting a challenge.
Step 4: Apply It To Your Life!
Now that you remember what energizes and enlivens you, it’s time to inject some of that energy into your work and life! You could do the same activities you did as a kid or imagine an evolution of those activities that would be more fun for you now. Additionally, if you’re not regularly using the skills you enjoyed using as a kid, try finding ways to use them now and see how you enjoy them.
Here are a few examples of how I implemented this in my life:
I joined a tennis club
From the moment I joined I was energized as I anticipated playing again. I picked out new court shoes, got some tennis balls, and experienced a rush of good memories and feelings as I started playing again.
I play on my breaks
When taking a break at work, I used to catch up on the news by watching YouTube. Now, I play! If I’m at my home office I’ll play African drums or guitar for a bit. If I’m at my downtown office I’ll dribble my basketball or go for a walk while listening to music. It’s incredible how mentally and physically refreshing those activities are compared to catching up on the news. It’s no wonder Google’s campus looks like a playground.
I turned my work into a strategy game
I’m doing work I love, but it got even better when I started imagining my work as a strategic game I was playing. Just as I loved managing resources and building cities in Sid Mier’s Civilization, I now imagine I’m building an empire with strategic objectives, assets, and interesting characters. It really helped shift the context from work to play.
Good luck! I hope you rediscover your playful roots and experience an influx of joy and playful energy. I’ll leave you with a video of a master at play.