Friday, June 13, 2008

The Power Of Play

In our quest for health and physical fitness, many of us have been asking the wrong questions about our bodies. people with a cosmetic orientation ask "How good can I look?" Those with an athletic orientation ask "How can I beat the competition?" People with a medical orientation ask, "How can I stave off dread diseases?"

These are not bad questions, but in terms of promoting widespread improvements in human health, they are not really on target. The questions we should be asking are "How gracefully can I move?" "How vigorous can I be?" "How good can I feel?" and perhaps most importantly, "How much fun can I have in the process?"

Play is the most underrated part of the modern physical education experience. Play is for kids, so we're told. Work is for adults. Woe to any adult who actually admits to playing. Play is considered frivolous, unproductive, selfish and self-indulgent. It has no validity and no justification. This bias against play is so pervasive that the only way we can get away with playful movement is to disguise it under a cloak of labor or sporting achievement. If you want to move your body in public, be sure to call what you're doing a "work out", lest anyone question your motives.

Opponents of play are clearly suffering from an excess of gravity. Nose to the grindstone and fingers to the bone. Stop playing and grow up. Results are what matter. Just get it done. Achievement is paramount. The grim warrior wins the battle. I labor, therefore I am.

In today's culture, this anti-play orientation compromises the lives of millions of people. Play is essential to animal wholeness and must be considered a part of a complete education at all levels. Living without play is not a noble and commendable approach to life, it is a deficiency and an aberration. Absence of play is not a sign of maturity, it is a sign of pathology.

Many Americans find this idea of legitimizing play difficult to comprehend. We reflexively assume that the best way to condition our bodies is to do something called a "work out". Presumably, this term is a consequence of our Puritanical roots and a by-product of industrialization. Naturally, it implies the need for labor, as in those cases when a relationship goes bad and we have to "work it out". According to this orientation, if you've got a problem, labor is the solution.

As it so often happens, language determines our attitude as well as the result. If you call it a "work out", you're going to enter the experience with a set of assumptions, namely that physical movement is labor. This work ethic leads directly to a "work out ethic", a belief that the amount of work performed is the measure of the person and that more is necessarily better. Obviously, this is not a good place to begin a physical training program. When we begin physical education with the word "work", it's not hard to understand that people fail to get excited.

The Benefits Of Play

The benefits of play are both broad and deep; broad i the sense that a playful attitude can give us pleasure across a wide range of activities,deep in the sense that play can be truly profound.

On a physical level, all of the well-established benefits of exercise also come to us with physical play. We've all heard the list by now:increased cardiopulmonary function,improved strength and endurance, greater flexibility, coordination and balance. Whatever exercise gives us, play can also give us.

Yes, in a strictly scientific sense, play might not always deliver the ideal kind of movement for elite athletic fitness. If you're scampering around the field, starting and stopping erratically or throwing your head back in laughter, you might not keep your heart rate in the target zone continuously and you might not do enough sets and reps to stimulate major tissue changes.

But in the real world, play trumps the scientifically correct methods for the simple fact that people are more likely to actually do it. Play can give us many of the benefits of laborious exercise, but it can also give us something that many workouts cannot; a sense of joy. And in non-human animals, play delivers just fine. The playful dog doesn't do sets , reps or check his heart rate, he gets in shape entirely without labor.

The other wonderful thing about play is that it levels out our social hierarchies as it makes physical education more egalitarian. Success in play is a personal judgement call; no one can rank our performance, no one can claim alpha status as the "most playful" and no one can put us down. There can be no MVP, no top 10, no Hall of Fame. You get to make the call on the quality of your own experience. If you're having fun, you're doing it right.

Being subjective, play can't be measured, broken down or analyzed. There can be no stats or spreadsheets, no Olympic finals,no standings. Fun is in the body and the spirit of the player, not i the eyes of the judges or on the faces of stopwatches. There can be no standards, no qualification rounds, no eliminations;just experience. No shoe contracts to the best players, no endorsement deals to those who get the most pleasure out of movement. It's up to us; we get what we play for.


vespajitsu said...

Great article. Since I've started rolling BJJ I feel like a kid again, it's always recess :)

Frank said...

Great article & photo!
Thanks for posting them!