Saturday, August 15, 2015

Why people and animals should take time out to play

Skye and Bosca don't hesitate to play any time they see each other.
If you're into evidence-based activities, today's post provides evidence for having a good old time.

It seems like there is currently a plague of workaholism, at least where I live. The paradox of work is, the more you do, the more there is to do, and it’s very possible to fill every single minute of the day with something work related – phone calls, emails, reading this paper or that paper, following up a reference, and as a vet there’s also all the other vetty stuff we do like surgery and consultations.

But working too much is akin to an ineffectual vertebrate pest control program. You tick things off the list like one might cull a so-called pest species, only to find that the ecological niche is filled due to population rebound - or another pest species is ready to fill the gap. Okay, so maybe I’ve been reading a bit too much about vertebrate pest control recently (well, it is an animal welfare matter).

Perhaps sensing this futile cycle of work begetting to more work, a friend sent me a scientific article about play. The opening quote made me sit up and pay attention.
 “We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing” – George Bernard Shaw
If there’s one thing I like less than working too much, it’s the concept of aging prematurely. Apparently, play can be an antidote.

In reading about animal welfare, I’ve also been reading about play. According to biologists, this is something animals engage in so they can a) practice skills that enhance their survival; b) enhance their reproductive success. Its unlikely kittens are actually thinking these things when they race up our curtains – they’re probably just really enjoying racing up our curtains. It just happens to be a nice side effect that curtain-climbing improves climbing skills in general, such that a regular curtain climber may be much better at evading a cheeky dog.

The thrust of this paper is that we all need to “free up time from the pursuit of predictable goals in order to encourage curiosity and look for surprises”.
This means avoiding mind-numbing distractions like TV and probably social media, taking maximum advantage of our natural circadian rhythms, and finding spaces that encourage us to think and be creative.  And play.

Among other things, play is
  • spontaneous and rewarding, a goal in itself;
  • time out where the play is (at least to some extent) protected from serious consequences of the behaviour;
  • sensitive to prevailing conditions and occurs only when the player is free from illness or stress. It is an indicator of wellbeing;
  • accompanied by positive mood state

Adult life gets in the way of play (how many times have you spent precious time off doing very mundane things like installing software?).

The key, according to the author, is to make room for play. Which just might improve the way we spend time working.
“The make-up of their personalities and the constraints of day-to-day living will often mean that many, perhaps most, people are neither playful nor creative in their adult lives. By creating protected space for themselves, humans can, however, change their behaviour and start to meet the challenges of their lives in new ways. It is an open question just how many are willing and able to make the change.”
Note to self: create protected space/time. Happy weekend!


Bateson, P (2015) Playfulness and creativity. Current Biology 25(1):R12.