Why Creative Play Matters

Earlier this week, I went on a date in Dupont Circle. We ended up going to this fun place called Board Room, filled with board games like Monopoly, Risk, and Settlers of Catan. I had a great time kicking butt at Boggle and losing at Jenga.

It was perfect timing. Fall can feel like the least playful of seasons. Kids go back to school. Work begins to ramp up after all the summer vacations. The Stark family motto from Game of Thrones echoes through my head:

       Winter is coming

Of course, this is when we need play, especially creative play, the most.

What is creative play?

Creative play is imaginative fun. It feels silly, whimsical. Most important, it’s fun. Kids are constantly in the middle of creative play, including:

  • Making up stories
  • Dressing up
  • Building something from found materials
  • Experimenting with food

All of these require imagination and exercise important cognitive skills, especially executive function. This cognitive skill helps us control our emotions and impulses. As we get older, creative play can reduce stress and make our days more fun. It also helps us stay in touch with our imagination and joy.

If it’s so good for us, why does no one do it?

If there’s a word that describes being an adult especially in America, it’s productivity. We’re expected to always be on. Rather than doing things well, we’re often trying to do more in less time. The Protestant work ethic is strong in America. So strong, that we often see play as immature, childish, and a waste of time.

Technology also makes creative play less necessary. Netflix, social media, 24 hour news: there are so many ways to let someone else entertain us. With longer commute times, growing demands at work, and juggling other commitments, who has time to sleep let alone play?

Play can be even more difficult for creative people. So many don’t take creative work seriously. You make up stories? You paint pretty pictures? They seem to insinuate that because our work is based on imagination, it’s not hard work. Certainly isn’t worth valuing economically. In the effort to be taken seriously, we can make creativity only work, forgetting how to play altogether.

Yet, keeping creativity fun is critical for staying creative. Here are a few reasons why:

Expand your imagination

We are creatures of habit, even when we’re being creative. It’s easy to find inspiration in the same places, to tell certain kinds of stories, or write songs that sound the same. It’s good to know what works but that can limit your work. It can blind you from opportunities all around you.

Taking the time to play expands your imagination. For instance, I’ve always loved making up dances to songs. As a kid, my friends and I would perform to Backstreet Boys, Aqua, and Spice Girls for our parents (You know it’s love when they’re willing to watch you dance to Barbie Girl.)

Today, I still love dancing to catchy pop music. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down, sweaty and excited with a story idea found mid-song. Dancing affects my work: These pieces are often more physical and tactile because I’d just been spending time not in my head, but in tune with my body.

Whether you dance or start cutting up old paper towel tubes, bringing creative play back into your life opens new avenues for inspiration and new angles to explore.

Experiment with reduce risk

chess

You have an idea. Perhaps it’s just an inkling, but it intrigues you. You want to explore it further, but you have to bet on its success. Would you be willing to bet a million dollars? What about five? At five dollars, you’re much more likely to bet and see if your idea could work.

Play allows you to experiment without huge amounts of risk. You’re not painting a commission; you’re just trying to paint with your pinky finger. You’re not doing a client’s portrait session; you’re capturing your best friend laughing. At the very least you get a good laugh. Or, you may have found a great new idea you want to pursue more seriously.

Giving yourself the permission to take risks and enjoy the process will help you grow and continue to develop, regardless of your medium.

Reconnect and remember

Sometimes, writing can feel just like work. I have a deadline to meet. I’m stuck on a piece. I wake up to rejections in my inbox. Sometimes it doesn’t give me joy.

Taking the time to play helps me remember the parts I love about writing and art. Sometimes that means writing an utterly ridiculous piece about the future. Other times, it means creating a black out poem from thrift store dictionaries. Occasionally it takes me to cafes where I make up stories about the people around me, realistic or not.

Taking the time to be silly and have fun reminds me of all the positives of being a writer. I reconnect with the process I love. I get to ask questions, make up crazy scenarios, and delve into the human psyche. It helps me keep perspective and coming back again and again to the blank page.

If you can’t have any fun, why are you putting all this time and energy into it?

Bringing play back

rollercoaster

Don’t know where to start? Here are some ideas to help you bring recess back into your day.

Go down memory lane

What did you like to do as a kid? Did you tell stories? Did you gather leaves and strange things from around your house? Going back through your memories can give you ideas for play you may still love but forgot years ago.

For instance, I was always curious about other people. At five or six years old, I wandered off from my parents in an airport. Frantic, my mother began looking for me. She found me sitting next to an older man. Somehow we had struck up a conversation and he even helped me learn how to yo-yo.

These days, I may not strike up as many conversations, but I enjoy the same inquisitive nature by making up stories about people I see. This game allows me to adapt a curiosity I’ve always had with my more introverted nature today.

Don’t have a great memory? Ask older relatives, friends, or anyone that was close to you when you were growing up. Their answers can help you get started.

Check out the dollar store

Play doesn’t have to be expensive. The dollar store can be a great place to find fun ways to harness your inner kid. Usually, they have an aisle for crafts, coloring, and other fun kids toys. Peruse the store, does anything grab your eye? For me, it can be bubbles or some cheap crayons. Find a few supplies and then make something

You may find yourself building with play dough, creating a Crayola masterpiece, or making music with a brand new set of spoons.

Make an everyday experience magical

new york rain

Kids have a way of making the most innocuous moments wonderful and exciting. Shadows on the ground become spirits caught in our world. Somehow, they will always laugh over farts and poop.

Ok, farting at work may not be a good idea but you can find magic in your day. Take five minutes to look up at the clouds. What do you see? Pour extra bubbles in your bath and build a bubble castle with your hands, or spike your hair. Dress up for a fancy dinner at home. Let your imagination propel you forward. Who knows? It may inspire some amazing creative works you’d never think of otherwise.

Hang out with an expert

One of the best ways to find your inner kid is to play with a kid. Turn the TV off and let yourself play together.  See what they want to do and be present. Make up a story together. Sharpen your paper airplane techniques.

Whatever you end up doing, suspend your disbelief and enjoy some time together. Take time to notice if your inner kid comes out and how. You may just find you won’t need your creative mentor the next time.

How do you unleash your creative kid? Let me know in the comments!

2 Comments

  1. Fantastic article. So VERY true and unfortunate that, in our culture, we – as adults- are encouraged to lose that wonderful spark of creativity and inspiration. Thank you for reminding me to fuel the child within me!

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