“Play is a state of mind. How we approach an activity rather than the activity itself.”
We’ve previously talked about the benefits of play on our mental state as adults and the freedom from the stress of tirelessly working through a training programme in a quest to redefine our next impossible. We’re hooked on the idea of play, having experienced the benefits ourselves with the play in our calisthenics training. Therefore we’ve been geeking out on what the ‘play experts’ who’ve studied the benefits of play, have to say about it and found some fascinating stuff!
One researcher Stuart Brown, author of ‘Play’, studied play in both the animal kingdom as well as in humans. He found something that really challenged my thinking on why play is found in the animal kingdom. Do animals really play and if they do why would they do it?
We’ve all seen cute videos of young animals seemingly playing and one thing I always assumed about play in the animal kingdom, a playful fight between kittens for example, was ‘play’ for them is to prepare for the wild, how to fight, hunt and protect themselves.
However Brown cities in his book, that play is not that at all and far more important and even fundamental to our very existence. Yes necessary for our survival but not in the ‘play fight’ scenario I assumed.
I was fascinated by his findings that the ‘play fight’ scenario is more about animals understanding and figuring out social boundaries through play than about learning how to fight and protect themselves. Yes they might be skills that develop as part of the playing process but they are not the reason for it. The ‘play fights’ isn’t initiated with the intension of learning how to fight and protect themselves. It’s a creative way to explore what is socially acceptable, without rules, direction or specific intention. Brown says that for something to be deemed as genuine ‘play’ it must be something that has no desired outcome and purely done for the fun of it.
As adults this is challenging as we often think of ‘play’ as games and sports which aren’t always done for the shear fun of the activity. And as Brown states ‘on closer inspection, many of the things we regard as play as adults have the qualities of work and not play’.
However he believes ‘play’ is so important as adults and says the research shows we are designed by nature to continue playing throughout our adult life and that when play is lacking in ones childhood, it can be linked to serious mental health problems as adults.
“Life-long play is central to our continued well-being, adaptation and social cohesiveness.” – Stuart Brown
So play may well have improved our ability to survive in this world, but maybe not through the mechanisms you first thought and has now been shown to enhance the health and wellbeing of us all.
It’s started making me look at play through a very different lens, particularly when relating it to training. Am I really playing or do I sometimes have too much of an agenda and intention when I embark on the play aspect of my training?
Could if I actually embrace the ‘shear fun of it’ and would it actually help me progress more?
One thing is for sure, a training session focused on play can be a nice break from the rigours of training mentally. However we now believe it could also be the key to our progress.
Functional Medicine Practitioner, Chris Kresser cites ‘10 benefits of play‘ including the benefits on neurological growth and development of the brain. He says the research strongly links play to the development of the cerebellum, a region of the brain associated with motor control, essential in co-ordination and skill acquisition.
In our calisthenics training we are often trying to move in new ways or learn new skills and motor patterns. When we combine the evidence of play for improving motor control with what we know about brain plasticity, play starts to look like an essential element we need for progression in our training.
Brain plasticity, the brain ability to create new neural pathways, was something I was introduced to with my work as an ambassador for charity Headway Nottingham. Back in 2013 after a brain injury ended my rugby career I took an interest in undertaking brain injuries and tried to support the charity with fundraising.
Something I discovered with my work at Headway was around the brains ability to create new neural pathways to overcome damaged parts of the brain. I was lucky and had only a small scar on my brain and recovered relatively quickly. Others are not so lucky and functions of the brain can be dramatically affected. But the good news is that the brain has the ability to overcome damaged areas of the brain through brain plasticity.
In the fascinating book ‘The Brain That Changes Itself’ Norman Doidge tells some remarkable stories of brain plasticity in action with severely damaged and affected patients. He observed brain plasticity being able to form new neural pathways, by-passing damaged areas of the brain, that were affecting various cognitive functions including basic balance and even sight.
In our training we don’t need dramatic effects like improvement in our sight or memory after a brain injury. But the point I’m trying to make is that if brain plasticity is so powerful and adaptable, able to work in these extreme examples and is initiated through play, we can use it to our advantage in training.
Brain scans show the brain continues to change and develop into our twenties and even in adult life. If we carry on playing it continues to prompt neurogenesis long into old age. So if we are trying to learn a new skill like a handstand and ensure that genuine play is an integral part of how we learn that new skill we are creating the ‘environment’ to allow our brain to develop new neural pathways, improve the motor control and the co-ordination we need when learning a new skill like a handstand.
We also get all the other fore mentioned benefits of play, positivity affecting things like; mental health, happiness, reducing stress, improving problem solving to name but a few. So whether like me you are thinking about having more play in your training for variety or to help your progression, I hope you can embrace the true meaning of play and do it for the sheer fun of it.
Then our hope is that you gain all these benefits too.