Column: The Magic of Play

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Let’s try something.  Here’s a simple task developed by psychologist Nancy Napier (2014).

  1. Take a sheet of paper and draw two horizontal lines a couple of inches apart.
  2. Now start a timer and write “I am a great multitasker” in the first line and the numbers 1-20 sequentially on the second line.

How long did it take? 20 seconds?

Ok, now flip the paper over and draw two horizontal lines a couple of inches apart. This time, multi-task through the same work.  Write a letter on one line and a number on the other: I/1/a/2/m/3 … etc … How’d that go? Did it take longer? Did it take more energy? It very likely did because we cannot multi-task (Applebaum, Marchionni & Fernandez, 2008).  We can switch tasks, and we do it very quickly.  But two tasks at once. Nope.

We work best when we are mindful, letting our brains do what they do best: be in the moment. Mutli-tasking creates stress and so do all sorts of other things we’re trained to do from creating unmanageable agendas to impossible to do lists. To create the benefits of being in the moment, we must break the cycle of creating constant work. And, one of the best ways to succeed at doing that is simply to play. Something we did as kids, might be really good for us as adults.

Photo Credit:  M. Tejeda-Moreno

[Photo Credit: M. Tejeda-Moreno]

I remember decades ago when I invited a date to a Litha celebration that my local group had organized. My date was interested in Paganism in the context, I think, of having a future ex-boyfriend who happened to be Pagan. He had some interest in the occult that he had cultivated as a teenager, but had let go when beginning a career in science. He held tightly to his faith of origin; or rather his faith of origin was an important aspect of his identity.

It was clear from the start that the ritual was never going to match his expectations. His idea of ceremony had been inculcated by his organized religion. So with observances like Yom Kippur as the counterpoint for comparison, – that being his favorite holiday – I had some real doubts about how the day would go. But beyond the ritual itself, I was surprised to learn that the behavior of the participants also failed to meet his expectations of what adult behavior should be at a religious ceremony. After the Litha ritual, his remarks were an attempt to dismiss its importance. Yet in doing so, he exposed a powerful message that he was unable to appreciate. He found the celebration “a childish waste of time, nothing like a real service.  [You guys] are just playing”.

Well, that relationship ended that week. But he was right about one thing: play was involved. And summer is also a call to play that many of us celebrate in rituals that range from circles to road trips. The festivals that we attend mix structured reverence and unstructured play in magical ways. The journey of summer is an enchanted experience – for those like us who notice – that strengthens our relationship with Nature and one another. In summer, the Earth does her work of fulfilling the promise of harvest set out in spring. It is a season of luxury, relaxation and vacations. The remains of the day last well after the workday’s end giving us more opportunity to share daylight with each other. Summer offers us time for play.

Defining play is in fact a pretty hard task for social scientists. It’s not so much an activity as it is a process. It is a state of being where the act of doing the activity is more important than the outcome of the activity. It’s supposed be an intentional activity of no outcome. It is physical and mental, social, spontaneous and imaginative. It is purposeless recreation with no apparent adaptive function. It is doing nothing and something at the same time. Some of the first Italian words I learned from my Italian husband were Dolce far niente: it is so sweet to do nothing. That’s a good place to start to understand play.

Nature also offers us some interesting lessons on play.  Animals love to play when they are young but, unlike humans, they continue to play into adulthood. And let’s be clear: animals have a rougher life. They have to find food, shelter, and water every day. They have to guard from predation and essentially fight for survival during their entire lives. Yet, they play. They still find time to enjoy doing “nothing.” Animals even engage in play activity across species, and YouTube is replete with examples. Ravens enjoy snowboarding; elephants romp about in mud; dogs love to play catch; cats like to … well, let’s skip cats … and bears enjoy just frolicking about.

We, on the other hand, reserve play only for our young, and even then we have confounded the act of play with the act of playing games. But play is not solely about gaming. It’s about being, not winning. Through gaming, we have redefined play in a manner that gives it a purpose; in a way that has winners and losers. We built a value system that devalues purposeless play in favor of activities that promote competition over collaboration. As White (2000) cleverly observed our society only honors competitive play.

But playing isn’t gaming. It is about being. As we demand that our play have outcomes, we slowly lose our childhood. Worse yet, in my opinion, we teach that to our children and help them slowly loose theirs. And to all our detriments, because play has important benefits.

Photo Credit: Stefano Ciotti

Photo Credit: Stefano Ciotti

Psychiatrist Stuart Brown reviewed some 6000 play histories of individuals and found that playing together had a range of benefits. He found that play was related to emotional intimacy between individuals and appeared to even help couples regenerate their relationships. He also found that play between strangers speeds up the bonding process that individuals experience by fostering empathy. He also found that  a lack of play appeared related to deviant behavior including becoming involved with the criminal justice system.

In research conducted at University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Pellis and his colleagues examined the brains of female rats that were assigned to non-play and play conditions to determine if neurological effects could be observed with play deprivation. Like other mammals, rats are born with an overabundance of a certain type of brain cell for building connections. Based on environmental experiences, these cells create connections with one another while culling off unnecessary ones. The result is a perfectly balanced brain that has maximized its experience from its environment. Pellis hypothesized that play was an important determinant of how health brains grow. And, the findings supported the hypothesis. Play-deprived rats appeared to have damaged brains when compared to their play-available counterparts.

Additionally, there is evidence in to back a claim that there are similar beneficial effects for us as well. We have a physiological system called the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis (HPA). This system regulates many different process in the body and serves as an interface point between the nervous and hormonal systems of our bodies. When we experience challenges – something requiring our attention that is difficult and that we may not want to do all the time- the HPA pathway kicks in with different hormones to biochemically represent psychological stress to our bodies. Constantly activating the HPA with all the concerns of adulthood from money to the economy to lines at the gas station result in the chronic activation of the HPA. That unpleasant stress slowly builds up and produces negative effects. A messy HPA system is implicated in a huge number of disorders including depression, attention deficit, burnout, chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia and even alcoholism. Perhaps the scariest of all, prenatal and early childhood stress can cause the system to misalign with implications for a lifetime.

Medical models have focused on using anti-depressants to get the HPA system back in balance. But psychological models take a different tack. They focus on how we process stress and how we relax. Behavioral approaches to stress reduction impact the key stress hormone we have: cortisol. And through relaxation, the impact of stressors that result in imbalances of the HPA can be lessened.

There are many techniques to relaxation including visualization, repetitive prayer, and physical activity. Social support is also important. Activity with others, from friends to partners, are also part of stress management. But, the beauty of play is that it combines the mental, physical and social to create a simple mindful remedy.

In fact, play is a remedy we should not only consider, but also a remedy we should teach. As a social justice issue, poverty robs many of us, especially children, of play. And for adults, the constant demand for productivity and work, makes many of us assign priorities to playtime in a manner that is counterproductive to our physical and emotional health. Surrounding ourselves with playful people brings us into the moment doing nothing, having a good time,re-balancing ourselves and letting our own nature offer health. Spending time doing nothing is amazingly beneficial.

Dolce far Niente. 

But it is also so very syntonic with a Pagan path. Play is a deeply transgressive act. It is a violation of societal expectations of adulthood. It is a subversion of productivity and responsibility. It is a desecration of industry. It is the rejection of structure and forced outcome. And, it’s actually pretty good for you. Play releases us from the worries created by our society. So will play improve your health? Well, there’s evidence that it can. And more importantly, like many Pagan activities, we’ll have fun trying.


Appelbaum, S.H.; Marchionni, A., & Fernandez, A. (2008). The multi-tasking paradox: perceptions, problems and strategies. Management Decision, 46(9): 1313–1325. DOI:10.1108/00251740810911966

Brown, S. L. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. Penguin.

Bell, H. C., Pellis, S. M., & Kolb, B. (2010). Juvenile peer play experience and the development of the orbitofrontal and medial prefrontal cortices. Behavioural brain research207(1), 7-13.

Napier, N.  (2014). The Myth of Multiasking.

Smith, L. K., Forgie, M. L., & Pellis, S. M. (1998). Mechanisms underlying the absence of the pubertal shift in the playful defense of female rats.Developmental Psychobiology33(2), 147-156.

White, B.  (2000). Why Normal Isn’t Healthy: How to Find Heart, Meaning, Passion, and Humor on the Road Most Traveled.  Hazelden Publishing & Educational Services. Center City: MN.