The importance of the lost arts of play, doing nothing and just being

by Aug 11, 2014Stress0 comments

On recent more balmy summer days it has been a great pleasure watching children mucking around on beaches, doing what kids have always done at seasides, build sandcastles, play make-believe games, muse, have fun, go with the flow not knowing what is going to next trigger their imaginations. It has been equally nice to be one of the many adults mulling around footpaths, sitting around on benches, not worrying much about having an agenda. This seems an increasingly rare experience in a world where there are more and more pressures, life is incredibly timetabled, increasingly so for children as well as adults, and there is such a lot of focus on achievement, on doing, on things to aim for like grades, and so little emphasis on just being. As Jon Kabat Zinn, the mindfulness guru suggests, maybe we are becoming human and not human beings! I worry that just being is becoming a lost art and that life is becoming much poorer as a result.

I was shocked when reading some research from the University of Virginia a few weeks back which told us that most people strongly dislike being still and inactive (Wilson et al., 2014). Findings from 11 studies of people of a range of ages, social classes, ethnic groups and genders, showed that people would do almost anything to avoid being alone with just their thoughts. It wasn’t just laboratory conditions that led to this. They tried the same experiments in people’s home and there it was even more uncomfortable with many cheating by sneaking looks at smartphones or turning on music. Most amazingly many would rather receive electric shocks than have to sit in quiet contemplation for between just 6 and 15 minutes. Almost anything was better than sitting still with their thoughts, without external distractions such as electronic media, reading materials or organized activities (Link to account of the research).

As a longish-term mindfulness practitioner, I am all too aware of how difficult just being still and with oneself can be. Maybe I am unusual but what I also know is that finding a way of being with oneself gives rise to extraordinary riches, is the seed of creativity, but sometimes to get there we have to bear with huge uncertainty, that negative capability that Keats wrote of, what Rebecca Solnit meant I think when she wrote in her Field Guide to Getting Lost (Solnit, 2006) ‘Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.’ I also see from therapy clients though that being able to be still is much harder for some people than others, and much harder for any of us when we are stressed, anxious or unhappy. This is something the great paediatrician Donald Winnicott wrote about long ago, that ability to be alone, which is the root of being able to play and be creative but which depends so much on feeling good and safe in relationships, being loved and cared for (Winnicott, 1971, 1958).

Winnicott was onto something when he linked the ability to feel safe and relaxed with play and creativity. The world we live in seems an increasingly pressured and driven one. Kids getting shepherded from activity to activity and never being just still is just one example, as is the temptation to always reach for some kind of distraction, particularly an electronic one, the moment there is a pause, a free moment, a gap. Like in the study mentioned, gaps seem increasingly intolerable, a feeling which is fed by tech designers whose aim is to keep us online for as long as possible, to get us to flit between as many sites as possible, and of course the profits of companies like google depend on us clicking the maximum number of links. The danger though is that we develop jumpy brains and lose the capacity to be still or concentrate.

For children the dangers are worse, and are likely to have an effect on the future of society. Schools seem increasingly focused on achievement and targets, as indeed are even nurseries, which means much less room for real mentoring relationships, for genuine curiosity, for allowing interests to grow in their own time and way in each person. Worse is the loss of time for playing. We know now that ironically it is activities like play, as well as physical exercise, that aid brain development and academic achievement, yet these are just what are being crowded out of children’s busy activity and target driven lives.

Play and mucking around, without a pre-set agenda, is we know something that all mammals do, which is why so many neuroscientists such as Jak Panksepp argue that it must be vital for evolutionary survival (interesting article about play here). Pellis , Panksepp (Burgdorf and Panksepp, 2006) and others have found that animals and children who play and have unstructured time actually perform better in many spheres than those who don’t, including academically as another recent study showed (Barker et al., 2014). Other studies suggest that free play in childhood is a predictor of social success in adulthood (click for article). Panksepp also found the same with other mammals, those deprived of play opportunities when young did much worse (Panksepp, 2007). Indeed, so many of the traumatized and abused kids I work with cannot play, are too tense and stressed to do so and were never given the building blocks, such as feeling safe and that the world was reliable and people could be rusted. These are too often the kids who struggle academically, socially and in society generally, and whose lives are so much poorer, in particular because they get so much less pleasure from life.

This all feeds into the arguments Iain McGilchrist (Mcgilchrist, 2010) has long been, making, that we are living increasingly in a society in which the functions for which our right hemisphere is dominant, such as intuition, empathy, being able to be uncertain, not being overly organized, are being eroded or undermined as society moves to a much more left-hemisphere way of thinking, with more and more targets, protocols order, control and attempts to imitate scientific efficiency and certainty at the expense of creativity, the unknown and just being.

To quote Solnit again, ‘How do you calculate upon the unforeseen? It seems to be an art of recognizing the role of the unforeseen, of keeping your balance amid surprises, of collaborating with chance, of recognizing that there are some essential mysteries in the world and thereby a limit to calculation, to plan, to control. To calculate on the unforeseen is perhaps exactly the paradoxical operation that life most requires of us.’

So here is to valuing play more, and just being more, and hoping that we can allow the hazy lazy atmosphere of summer to stay with us. As mindfulness practitioners often exhort, instead of saying ‘don’t just sit there, do something’, we should leave room to suggest ‘don’t just do something, sit there’.

Barker, J.E., Semenov, A.D., Michaelson, L., Provan, L.S., Snyder, H.R., Munakata, Y., 2014. Less-structured time in children’s daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning. Frontiers in Psychology 5. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00593

Burgdorf, J., Panksepp, J., 2006. The neurobiology of positive emotions. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews 30, 173–187.

Mcgilchrist, I., 2010. The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Panksepp, J., 2007. Can PLAY Diminish ADHD and Facilitate the Construction of the Social Brain? J Can Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 16, 57–66.

Solnit, R., 2006. A field guide to getting lost. Canongate, Edinburgh.

Wilson, T.D., Reinhard, D.A., Westgate, E.C., Gilbert, D.T., Ellerbeck, N., Hahn, C., Brown, C.L., Shaked, A., 2014. Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind. Science 345, 75–77. doi:10.1126/science.1250830

Winnicott, D.W., 1958. The capacity to be alone. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 39, 416–420.

Winnicott, D.W., 1971. Playing and Reality New York. Basic Books, New York.

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