Replay: What we can learn from the earliest forms of play

We need to get back to basics and take ‘frivolous’ play more seriously.


Every day, for anything from 30 minutes to an hour, at some point between lunch and dinnertime I’m forced to play. Waiting patiently for hours, until I’ve wrapped up important phone calls and made a big dent in the day’s work, my playmate isn’t fussy about what we do, where we go, or even who she plays with. But at some point, play must happen, or I suffer the disastrous consequences of ignoring an energetic and sociable puppy.

To watch dogs play—fetching a ball or tugging a rope, and especially playing with other dogs—is to witness unadulterated joy. Literally unleashed, all the running, jumping and tail wagging is a good reminder of what play is for—letting go of inhibitions or expectations, and just feeling free.

All sorts of animals have been observed playing for what seems like just the fun of it. Beluga whales blow ring bubbles in the water to swim through. Seagulls play catch with clams, and ravens snowboard on rooftops. Crocodiles give each other piggyback rides. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s thought that play helps animals learn and let off steam, improving their mental health and social survival skills.

Playing to win

It’s no surprise then, that play is woven into human history and culture. In ancient Sanskrit, which first appeared as script in 2000 BC, play was linguistically tied to joking, jesting and movement—hopping, skipping, dancing, and the lightness of wind and waves. It’s the sort of meaning we associate with recreational forms of play today: child’s play, role play, playing music, the play of light on water.

Centuries later, the Greeks began distinguishing this form of play from agon, which translates broadly as contest and specifically as either athletic event or clash of armies. The role of sport in preparing ancient Greeks for battle likely played a role in this distinction. In Anglo-Saxon poetry, the Old English plega, which became our modern English play, was used in a similar way to the Greek. Its combative spirit lives on in our more grown-up uses of the word: sword play, playing the stock market, getting played, playing “the game.”

replayJust like the carefree Sanskrit notion of play preceded a more competitive Greek version, the idea of play in our lives seems to change over time. We know how important it is for kids to have unstructured playtime—imagining, exploring, skinning their knees and learning along the way. Why, as we grow older, do we think of this kind of play as frivolous and migrate to forms that pit us against each other, and even our own wellbeing, in a struggle to get ahead and come out on top?

Serious play— ‘in it to win it’ sports, games and other competitive activities—makes for great exercise physically and mentally, but on an emotional and social level can also cause stress and conflict. When there’s a goal to be achieved, there are winners and losers. No one wants to be the latter, but by definition most of us fall into that category. For the Greeks, this was an unacceptable loss of honour. It’s a feeling we still carry with us today.

Playing for fun

From an evolutionary, historical and even personal perspective, there’s a lot to appreciate about earlier and more basic forms of play. They allow for greater expression and awaken our creativity, help us destress and live in the moment, make us feel happy and more connected.

When I’m stuck on an idea or the writer’s block creeps in, nothing gets me unstuck as reliably as stepping away from the screen and letting my mind wander in a moment of productive procrastination—letting my thoughts play with the challenge rather than forcing myself to solve it.

As adults, we’d do well to take this sort of ‘frivolous’ play much more seriously in all aspects of our lives—work, family, relationships, our own personal development. So go ahead. Get to that grownup summer camp. Grab yourself an adult colouring or sticker book, or even better, get in on that action with your kids. Learn to play an instrument just for fun. Or just take the dog for a walk.


Follow Daianna on Instagram at @thisisthoughtful.

Photo credit (header): Hugues de Buyer-Mimeure