As we grow up many of us become more serious versions of our younger selves, stuck in the turning cogs of life, less likely to slip spontaneously into playfulness. In my own, very unscientific research (i.e. conversations I’ve had with people I know—most of whom are parents), there is a heaviness that seems to attach itself to play once we have kids.

On the face of it this seems counter- intuitive. Wouldn’t having kids make us more likely to spend time in play mode, not less? In my experience, the answer has been a definitive not-so-much because, while I found myself playing more frequently, rarely did it feel light or loose or enjoyable, like play used to feel when I was young. It often felt (forgive me) like a chore. It felt like something I had to do because, as parents, we know that children learn through play and benefit enormously from it, as do our relationships with them. I was playing with them to help their development and deepen our bonds—things I both wanted and needed to do. By definition, it was not play, for me. When I pair this with my mistaken belief that play was solely the domain of the young, it’s little wonder I felt heavy and guilty about it much of the time.

I’m not advocating for a world where we stop worrying about serious issues in order to play LEGO all day. But if play inspires awe and wonder in us, if it promotes creativity and problem-solving, if it encourages empathy and compassion (which it does), how might it improve our efforts in solving serious, grown-up problems and making the world a more compassionate, egalitarian place?

Poverty and inequality and voter suppression and corporate greed and political corruption will not be played away but don’t worry that stepping away from these problems in order to play means you will miss an opportunity to enact change. Your advantage will be the different perspective you bring when you return. The questions you ask, the assumptions you jettison, the lightness you feel—these can all be agents and catalysts for real change.

Something else I keep returning to in my own exploration of play is that in order to try to recapture some of that lightheartedness I experienced as a kid, I often turned to drinking. Being drunk wiped out my inhibitions, let me dance freely and laugh loudly, head thrown back. It afforded me a heavy-handed kind of playfulness and allowed me to be funny, daring and, honestly, a bit of a pain in the arse sometimes.

I wonder whether the reason (or at least one of the reasons) many people drink or use drugs is to regain that sense of lightness and freedom we used to have as children. When it was okay to dance in the middle of the supermarket, you sang for the joy of it and didn’t give a hoot whether it sounded any ‘good’. Drinking offers a buffer of confidence or self-assuredness, whereas sober playfulness somehow feels more vulnerable.


Did you know there is more than one kind of play? Perhaps as many as sixteen? Even though there are clear differences between make-believe games, board games, playing with clay and making a cereal-box theme park for your soft toys, I’d never really considered that there were different categories of play, nor that we each have our own preferences. Recognising these different types of play has shown me why I’ve felt disconnected from play for so long—I’d been stuck on the idea that it needed  to look a particular way.

Dr Stuart Brown, founder of the US National Institute for Play,  has developed categories of play that are vital not only to our development, but also to our mental health, our ability to form trust  in our relationships, our emotional wellbeing, our job satisfaction and sense of empowerment as adults.

Here’s three from his list:

  • BODY PLAY AND MOVEMENT: What begins as a way for children to develop a spatial under-standing of themselves and the world around them becomes what  Brown delightfully describes as ‘a spontaneous desire to get out of the effects of gravity’.
  • IMAGINATIVE PLAY: As adults it’s a chance to work out our point of view, to try out different attitudes and character traits, to try on different costumes and see how the world feels when we wander through it in someone else’s shoes for a while.
  • RITUAL PLAY: If you love playing games with set rules or structures—sports, chess, board games and the like—these are all considered ritual play.

Even though it’s not possible to write an exhaustive list of ways to play, I wanted to offer a few ideas in case something here sparks  a light in you. Keep in mind it’s a list written from the perspective of an overthinking, over-earnest adult who still struggles to make laughter her default response and will probably never be quite as fun as Dad, but I hope there’s something in here that feels like home.

Brooke’s tips for play if you have half a minute:

  • Turn on your favourite song and dance around the house as you get ready in the morning.
  • Jump on a trampoline.
  • Spend a few moments between meetings colouring in or doodling.
  • Take a moment to share a joke or a funny story with a colleague.

This is an edited extract from Care by Brooke McAlary, Allen & Unwin, RRP $32.99, available 16th June 2021

Brooke McAlary is the best-selling author of three non-fiction books: Destination Simple, SLOW and now CARE. Brooke is also a tree-hugger, a mountain-lover, honorary Canadian (this is not a real thing but don’t tell her that), enthusiastic gardener and the creator of the #1 podcast, The Slow Home Podcast, (which has helped more than 2.8 million people) where she talks to interesting people about what it means to live slow in a fast-paced world.

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