Why Play Time Might Be The Most Productive Time Of All

Corey McComb
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“Adults are just obsolete children.” -Dr. Suess

In 2013, an elementary school teacher named Timothy Walker moved from Boston to Finland to teach 5th grade. A year later he wrote a piece for the Atlantic about how his students in Finland had fewer behavior issues, were more attentive, and less likely to burn out before the end of the day. The difference he found wasn’t in their curriculum. It wasn't in their or home life or economic situation. It was that students in Finland received two hours of recess per day. Every 45 minutes of classroom time was followed by 15 minutes of outdoor, unstructured play.

Compared to the U.S. average of 27 minutes, two hours of recess per day is a whole lot of extra time for kids to just be kids.

Less burnout. More play. More time for kids to just be kids.

The author and play theorist, Brian Sutton-Smith, nails it with the line, “The opposite of play isn’t work, it’s depression.”

And yet, most of us have grown to think of work and play as opposites. How many times did you hear it growing up: this isn’t a playground… or, when you sat still and nodded along, that you were so well behaved? Even sayings like, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” that are meant to promote play, further separate the two in our mind.

There are obvious reasons for this. The older we get, the more there is to be taken seriously. But somewhere on the journey from grass-stained adolescence to 401K adulthood, many people trade in their dreams for goals. SMART goals. Goals that must be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timebound. Our inner child looks at this like a plate of vegetables.

It’s easy to accept that play helps kids learn and socialize, but humans never grow out of the need for it. Studies show that “playful adults” feel the same stressors as anyone else, yet they react differently when that stress comes along. Playful people are less likely to internalize stress and have a higher threshold for it when it arrives. Like children in the classroom, adults also learn faster through interactive games where the spirit of play is present. And let’s not forget — playfulness is attractive. Our evolutionary hardwiring interprets playfulness as a sign of safety, viability, and fertility. It turns us on when we see it in others and gives us confidence when we feel it in ourselves.

Play also keeps us on the right side of biology. Letting our nervous system dial down. Our shoulders relax. Play brings us closer to the present moment and reminds us that our lives don't need to be held so tight. That we can let go, roll in the grass, and roll with the punches. Being playful with our lives reminds us that life isn't something to grip, but something to enjoy.

It’s true that not all work can be play. But play doesn’t always have to be a verb. Play is also an approach. An ingredient to sprinkle over work, school, sex, and love. Being playful with the important things in our lives doesn’t mean we don’t take them seriously, but it does serve as a wise reminder that, as a whole, life doesn’t need to be so damn serious. The Stoics used the phrase, memento mori — remember your death. Focusing on our mortality while remaining light-hearted might seem like a Jekyll and Hyde contradiction, however, death and play pair together nicely. Because at the root of memento mori is the question: If not now, when?

Adults Are Just Obsolete Children

“Eventually kids become adults. They become walking standardized tests with all the answers filled in.” —
James Altucher

Perhaps the most fitting line for an article about play belongs to Dr. Suess, who said, “Adults are just obsolete children.” Because isn’t that what the power of play is all about? Not becoming a miserable, obsolete bag of bones?

Our ability to imagine, create, and focus is connected to our ability to play. To be playful. To laugh, love, and just be. Play oils the gears. It waters the flowers and pulls the weeds. It’s the emotional time travel that reconnects us with our inner child. The inner child who’s waiting for us to ring the recess bell. The one watching as we chase endless hours of productivity, asking, “If the life we’re so busy creating doesn’t make time for play, then what’s the point?”

I often forget the importance of play in my own life. I find myself stuck in the weeds of SMART goals. I forget to play until my mind becomes full of thorns, insides dried out, brushfires of overwhelm tearing through. But once I realize that I’ve strayed off the path, I am hopeful. Because I know play is never out of reach. It’s always there, available through intention. We don’t need hours of recess to tap into its spirit. It’s doing the little things. Running through the grass with bare feet. Having gin-rummy tournaments. Charging full speed into the ocean and diving under the waist-high waves you used to pretend were 100 feet tall.

Play is a mindset. Play is productive. And without it, we fall into burnout and disconnect. We forget the point of what we're doing and why. A mind that is never left to be playful, is a heart headed for burnout. Perhaps the most fitting quote for an article about play belongs to Dr. Suess, who nails it with the line: "Adults are just obsolete children." That's what this is all about. Using play to stop us from becoming some dried-out, obsolete bag of bones.

Use the power of play. That silly yet poignant message in the fortune cookie that says, “Don’t take life too seriously, you’ll never make it out alive,” a message that, actually, we should probably start listening to.

What looks like random fun, unfocused or unscheduled time might just be the most "productive" time we can spend.

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Best-selling author of 'Productivity Is For Robots' | I sprinkle a dose of humanity into overly-optimized brains with stories on life, business, and what it means to be human. Visit coreymccomb.substack.com to see my best work. Follow me on Twitter @coreymccomb

San Diego, CA
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