Embodied Playing

Photo from Playcore

The Resources

The next guideline for embracing imperfection is cultivating play and rest: letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth. Now, I don’t think I have personally ever bought into the idea that achievements or ‘getting stuff done’ or being otherwise productive and successful conferred a sense of self-worth. Earlier in life, though, I did feel the lack of these were proof of my essential uselessness, so I just want to offer that perspective to anyone else who also never thought that they had found worthiness through their productivity.

Ages ago, I began a post that I titled “Holy Play”. It’s still in the drafts folder of my wordpress site because I fell down a bit of a rabbit hole with trying to figure out a holy and wholesome approach to play when so much of my experience of games was ruthlessly competitive and not at all fun or restorative. Playing a musical instrument was a special form of torture, and not just for me, but anyone in earshot. Playing sports highlighted the reality that non-winners weren’t worth having on the team or investing time to coach. Like creativity, play can be reduced to a particular field of activity and limited only to those who can prove their competency in it.

So, good news! Play is so much more than sports and board games and musical instruments!

Image by Tri Le from Pixabay

Brene references the work of Dr. Stuart Brown, psychiatrist, clinical researcher and founder of the National Institute for Play, and reading through some of his findings was very enlightening. It turns out there are many myths about play – in fact there are so many myths to bust here, it might even be worth a sub-title.

Myths about play

First, play isn’t about developing competency – play is simply the way human beings learn. As infants we begin to play with our caregivers, cooing, smiling, connecting and attuning to each other, and later we learn how to move our body, how to mix with others, how to manage our emotions and how to adapt to new circumstances and new challenges through play.

Photo by Rui Xu on Unsplash

Next, play isn’t just for the young. Yes, we learn through play and much of what we play at is practicing useful skills for later in life, and yes, some of the purpose of play in youngsters is to burn off excess energy or blow off steam. BUT. We don’t stop needing to practice managing our emotions, adapting to new circumstances and challenges, or working out how to mix with others just because we got older – although this is often what happens. AND so many of us (most of us?) often forget how to move. We forget how to be silly, how to get lost in a fantasy, how to trust, how to be in our own bodies.

Image by Birgit from Pixabay

Another myth is that child’s play is simply a rehearsal for adult activity. It’s not. Dr Stuart Brown’s research shows that play is actually an essential survival skill, and the opposite of play isn’t work – it’s depression, anxiety, impulsivity and sedentarism. We have a biological need for play, in the same way we have a biological need for sleep. So, obviously, play is important for the whole of your life.

The benefits of play

If you are still unsure and hoping to hold onto some of your dignity by opting out of play, here’s what you would be missing out on – play is good for developing trust, empathy, optimism, flexibility, attunement (this is at the level of brain waves- you literally tune in to the brain wave patterns of those you are playing with and become ‘on the same wavelength’), problem solving, experiencing joy in movement, perseverance, 3D thinking, emotional regulation and resiliency, exploration of the possible, imagination, openness to receive inspired ‘aha’ moments, cognitive growth, innovativeness, sense of belonging, cooperation and altruism. Sounds good, eh?

In pairing play and rest, Brene focuses on sleep as rest. Sleep is a huge factor in managing our ability to complete the stress response cycle …you know – stressor triggers one of the 5 F responses Fight, Flight, Freeze, Flock, Flop; once the danger has passed we complete the cycle by physically moving our body (especially if you didn’t fight or flee); re-connecting with community (especially if you didn’t flock); and then taking a moment to celebrate life or appreciate something simple and wonderful.

Image by ThuyHaBich from Pixabay

Adequate sleep is not an optional extra. Adequate – in terms of how many hours you need, whether you wake for a while in the middle of the night, whether you are a cat napper – can vary from person to person and what’s normal for you may change.

Having lived there for some years, I think it’s possible that the USA is especially bad at expecting work to trump all other commitments in life, and at assigning a person’s worth through their work success. But there are many fields of work where much more is demanded than the stated hours of pay. Where are those extra hours supposed to come from??

Pause to consider

How did you play as a youngster? What kinds of play did you enjoy most? What were you encouraged to do as play, and what was discouraged?

How do you play now? What messages were you given about adult life and playfulness? What role did competition have in your play?

What difference might it make if you approached life as a play ground not a proving ground or a battle ground?

The practices

All of the practices this week are playful – enjoy!

Some things you need to know about what characterises play over doing something you enjoy or find fun/distracting (like sudoku puzzles or brainteasers or solving simultaneous equations).


  • is voluntary
  • is purposeless
  • can be interrupted
  • is fun and pleasurable; there is a desire to continue
  • is engaging – you lose track of time
  • brings an altered sense of being (a soft gaze, relaxed intent)
  • does not occur if you are fearful, sick or otherwise threatened
  • involves the body (not a mind game)

There are four different kinds of play: Body play; object play; social play; fantasy play. You will probably find you are more gleeful about some of these than you are about others….for example, dancing, bouncing on a trampoline, climbing trees or rocks might be enjoyable fun, but when you are playing with lego bricks or play dough you find the zone that really lights you up. So pick a play practice or two and experiment with what brings on that altered state of being.

Dance like no one is watching

If you are comfortable to dance this way, put on your favourite tracks and just let loose. I can’t resist ‘Walking on Sunshine’ and ‘Dancing Queen’ is ALWAYS a good option, but you do you.

This is a body play practice that builds self-confidence because, as the School of Life say in their book Mind and Body, “true confidence builds on the idea that embarrassing ourselves is a standard feature of the human condition”, and, “the belief that we can’t fail is an irrational delusion bound…to lead to disaster. Genuine confidence is …the inner sureness that we’ll be OK even if we fail quite a few times or don’t pull off what we’re aiming at.” So, maybe you don’t think you can dance. Maybe you are afraid of embarrassing yourself. You can start out by trying this at home in the privacy of your own room.

Stand with your feet hip distance apart and your toes slightly turned out (at 10 and 2 o’clock). Bend your right knee – you’ll feel your heel rise and your toes sink into the earth; then with an exaggerated movement thrust your left hip out to the side, seeing how far you can push your hip out. Try to keep your shoulders level as you do this – practicing in front of a mirror will help you catch that. Now transfer your weight to the other side, bending the left leg, and swinging your right hip out. Practice this for a few days then add a twist into the extended hip.

Once you have got this down in private, be daring and find a moment to try it in public, perhaps in a small, quiet way…standing at the bus stop, waiting in a queue…

Dinner table orchestra

This is a social play practice, and you may or may not need to cajole your dinner companions to join in and give it a go, but the chances are that once things get started, they will find it hard to resist. The delight of an orchestra is the separate, focussed individuals creating collective harmony and coherence. The dinner table orchestra requires no rehearsals, however, and there’s delight to be found in the cooperative creation of our quirky companions.

One person starts by tapping a steady beat on the table with their hand. The person next to them adds another rhythm by gently striking a glass with their fork. A third person adds a complementary beat using their knife (gently) on their plate. The next person around the table adds a ‘hmmm’ sound in time with the knife, and another joins in with some occasional ‘nananahs’. Attunement happens as we play, so a kind of social miracle can occur as we cohere into a harmonious tone. We are making music! We are in communion!

Dress ups

Oh, how children love this one, and we so rarely get the chance to do this when we grow up. How refreshing to spend a few hours as a Viking Warrior Princess, or a Making Fire from Scratch Cave Dweller. Of course, undignified and ridiculous, but see above about embarrassment as de rigeur for being human, and by dressing up and inhabiting the world of another kind of person, (fantasy play), we get a bigger perspective on life, on our own sense of identity and the many layers of parts and voices that live below the surface of our usual life. Give yourself permission to try these on for an hour or so, live in the fantasy of a medieval monk, a Parisian socialite, a puritan, a profligate…play the field and let your imagination fill the story.

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