How Play Affects Our Relationship with the World

Photo: Debra Spinney

Gwen Gordon is an Emmy award winning creative director who designed and built Muppets for Sesame Street. She is also the producer of the multi-part PBS series NOW Playing.

I recently stumbled upon this insightful interview she did a couple years ago. My favorite excerpts below:

In the early 70′s, John Bowlby described how a close and reliable bond with our primary caregiver is critical to healthy development. The two main ways we form those critical bonds is through playing and soothing.

Bowlby described three different attachment styles based on the level of security in the attachment bond: Secure, anxious/ambivalent, and avoidant. (A fourth one, disorganized attachment, was discovered later.) Bowlby observed how those earliest attachment relationships form the basis for our unconscious internal working models that get generalized to the whole world. In other words, before we have any ideas about religion or politics we have a worldview…

The securely attached person would see the world as a playground. S/he is more open, playful, and can more easily tolerate ambiguity.

The child with an anxious/ambivalent attachment style grows up seeing the world as a proving ground where s/he feels s/he has to constantly prove herself to earn love.

The child with an avoidant attachment style grows up seeing the world as a battleground where everybody is a potential threat not to be trusted.

Sometimes we feel more secure than at other times, but most of us have a center of gravity or default style that we go to under “normal” circumstances.

Luckily, this isn’t a life sentence. We can all earn secure attachment and restore the sense of life as play.

Even if we’re lucky enough to have a secure attachment and view the world as a playground, modern life actually functions as a proving ground and battlefield. Our education and economic institutions are structured as proving grounds. That’s why we’re trying to get infants prepared for college!

We think we’re serving our children by getting them ready to prove and protect themselves on a proving and battleground.

The best thing we can do for ourselves and our children is to reclaim the playground.

The most important question we should be asking ourselves right now is how to do that!

Play is critical not only to our healthy development as children, but to our ability to function in every area of life throughout our lives. There are so many reasons adult play is important it’s hard to know where to start. It makes us flexible, adaptive, creative, able to deal with uncertainty, better able to get along with each other, more intimate, healthier, and happier.

Think of play as a superfood… the kale of behavior.

People who play, live longer, happier lives. It’s simple: we humans are most intelligent, most creative, happiest, healthiest, sexiest…when we are playing. That’s when whatever we’re doing, we’re open, relaxed, fully engaged, and having fun.

The bottom line is to create environments and cultures that are playgrounds not proving grounds; where it’s safe to experiment extravagantly and fail brilliantly, lots and lots of times! And to keep the creative process open for as long as possible.

We need to hang out in the unknown for as long as possible, create a safe space where ridiculous ideas aren’t ridiculed, and have a sense of humor about the whole thing. The research shows that, while play is good for creativity, playful play is even better. That’s when we’re bringing spontaneity, humor, and sheer unadulterated joy to the process. So I think it can help to play together before you dive into the serious problems you’re trying to solve. Create a culture of play first thing when you come to the office and last thing before you go. But not in any prescribed way… that’ll suck the play right out if it.

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Charlie Hoehn is the author of Play It Away, Play for a Living and Recession Proof Graduate. His work has been featured on NPR's TED Radio Hour, Forbes, Fast Company, and Harvard Business Review. Previously, he was the Director of Special Projects for Tim Ferriss. Currently, he is the Head of Video at Book In A Box. He lives with his wife and daughter in Austin, Texas.

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