Playing peek-a-boo, hopscotch or baseball; listening to rock and roll, Sondheim, or Sebelius; reading romance novels or watching a Shakespearian play—what do they all have in common? All are expressions of one of the most ubiquitous and intriguing human activities—play. And you thought playing was something that kids and a few adults who never grew up did. Actually, play is not random, carefree action, free from the restraints of more mundane human pursuits. Like all other thought and behavior, play is molded by the forces of the mind and the environment into nearly endless forms that fascinate us from shortly after birth until the end of life.
Do Adults Play?The lifestyle of some adults might, at first glance, suggest a negative response to that question. So would the thinking of some philosophers and the actions of many adults. Kids play, but adults work. Nose to the grindstone. Support the family, etc. But if that’s the case, how do we explain adult activities such as chess, cards and the enormous involvement in spectator sports? In order to understand why adults play, we need to consider the motivations that prompt this universal form of human expression and discuss its characteristics in both childhood and adulthood.
What Motivates Play?
Play has been extensively studied by psychologists, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, who have suggested that kids play so incessantly because they have to, not because they want to. Because their young, immature minds are flooded with ideas and situations that they cannot easily understand or quickly integrate, children live in a perpetual state of overload and over-stimulation. Their play is an attempt to master such experiences that are too overwhelming to be integrated in one fell swoop. Play is different at different ages (in both childhood and adulthood) because of gradually increasing levels of mental sophistication and the need to address new experiences and challenges that arise as we move through life. Adults are better equipped mentally to meet the challenges of everyday living than children. However, adult existence is certainly not free from stress or over-stimulation; hence the same basic human need motivates adults, as well as children, to play.
Adults play because it provides a mechanism for disengaging from frustration and disappointment in the real world and temporarily cloaks the mind in a soothing balm of illusory gratification that reduces tension and distress. Play provides an opportunity, without realistic consequences, to face real and imagined challenges, the overcoming of which relaxes tension and replaces it with pleasure. As the capacities of the mind grow and the demands of daily life multiply, play becomes an adaptive mechanism for coping with those demands. For both adults and children, play is a mode of coping with conflicts, developmental demands, deprivation, loss and yearnings. The nice thing about play is that if it increases tension, rather than reducing it, the player can just walk away, none the worst for wear.
The Nature of Play
Thought and ActionChildhood play is made up of two interlocking components— (a) wishes and fantasies, and (b) physical actions that magically bring the wishes and fantasies to life. Take, for example, the adult-usurping bravado of the five-year-old—“Let’s play house. I’ll be the Mommy. You be the baby.”—or the rhythmic hum of eleven-year-olds jumping rope to the accompaniment of “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Jean with the baby carriage.” Action may be greatly minimized or entirely absent in some forms of play in both childhood and adulthood, although much more so in adulthood. Sometimes we lazily prefer to let others do the physical work for us—such as when we are watching, (and wishing it was us) Serena Williams race back and forth across the baseline to make a passing shot or Payton Manning throw a sixty yard bomb for a touchdown—while we lounge on the coach and eat junk food. In these situations the person at play identifies with the athlete’s actions, adding his or her own fantasies to what is being seen and heard. This form of passive, non-motor participation in play through identification with others is the key component of all forms of spectator play. Hopefully the passing shots and TDs will encourage you to get off your ass and get out there and run or go to the gym, much better for muscle tone and your cardiovascular system.
Some games such as checkers and Monopoly require little in the way of physical exertion. In others such as bridge or chess, the enormous mental machinations going on barely spill over into the physical realm. However, special note should be taken of the eighty-year-old golfers who shot their age and those senior athletes of all sorts who prove that, although strenuous physical activity is a less frequent component of play in mid and late life, play remains a joyous mechanism for transforming mind into matter throughout life. The rush of adrenalin at the approach of a tennis ball and the sensation of physical competence following a smooth golf swing and watching your ball land on the green are joyous reminders that the body can still be commanded to do your will.
Pretending without ConsequencePlay ceases to be play when the capacity to pretend is lost. Because of their relative mental immaturity, children are less able to sustain the capacity to pretend than adults. Theirs is a world of perpetual transitions from play to reality and back again. Adults play less but sustain the ability to pretend for longer periods, sometimes to exquisite (or excruciating) degrees—be it the mental gymnastics required to complete a Wagnerian ring or the physical stamina and mental toughness needed to complete a marathon.
Play must be free of expectable consequences. Play should be enjoyed in the moment, and after it’s over, there should be no significant consequences in the real world. Well, sometimes there is some carryover. Consider the value attached to a coveted Little League trophy, or to being “Number One” in an after-work softball league or the Big Twelve. Although none of these play results matter much in the grand scheme of things (a statement which will surely displease rabid fans), all are after-effects carried over into the real world. This spill-over into reality adds spice to the play. A game becomes more exciting if there is even a small reward or a prize for the winner of a contest. A novel becomes more engrossing if the reader recognizes him-or-herself in the character’s fictional experiences. The historical novel, the roman a clef and a drama that portrays the human situation are more compelling than a fantasy in which no aspect of your life can be recognized.
In some instances, when adults lose the capacity to pretend, the consequences can be very real indeed. Fights between fans of opposing teams before, during and after European soccer matches or the big-city burnings that follow winning “world” championships in professional football or basketball demonstrate the loss of capacity to pretend. Consider the following example. When my son was playing little league baseball, I reluctantly agreed to umpire a game. After a disputed call I found myself trying to separate the two opposing coaches. While their eight-year-old players, a ruffled umpire and some disbelieving parents watched, the coaches began throwing punches. In “real” life one was a doctor, the other a judge.
Levels of Play
As the mind and the body mature, play changes to reflect the increasing abilities of both.
Level I PlayThrough “peek-a-boo” and other playful interactions with their parents, infants and toddlers learn the rudiments of play. You know the drill. Mother covers her face and then takes her hands away with a big smile. Nine-month-old Sally is quiet and a bit concerned when Mom covers her face, but bursts into laughter when Mom reappears. As this process is repeated again and again, Sally has her first experiences with a rudimentary form of play that increases her ability to integrate feelings and actions. Because of the pleasure of the peek-a-boo game when mother reappears after she takes her hands away from her face, and the anxiety which the infant experiences when Mom recovers it, the ability to tolerate various kinds of feelings and their expressive communication to others is begun. Once the toddler develops the ability to crawl, walk and manipulate objects, Level I Play is centered on the pleasures and the frustrations involved in developing new motor skills.
Level II Play
This level of play occurs primarily between ages three and seven or eight. It is characterized by an endless variety of fantasy enacted through resourceful and sometimes highly original characterizations. Level II play is unabashedly exhibitionistic and unembarrassed and high intriguing to adults. In therapy with young children, play is a broad freeway providing easy access into all avenues of the child’s life, provided that the therapist, or parent in non-therapeutic settings, has the knowledge to understand this form of communication and the tolerance to accept it.
Five-year-old Sarah was a magnificent ham, easily as talented as the actress Bernhardt who shared her first name. She was also determined to displace her mother from her position of prominence in the house and with Sarah’s father. Alone in a corner of the family room, she was overheard in the midst of animated conversation with her dolls by her somewhat bemused parents. “Hello, Jane (mother) said Tom (father). Sarah and I are going shopping to buy dresses.”
“Yes, Mommy,” said Sarah. Yyou stay home with David (brother) and clean the house.”
Later. “Mommy, it’s time for you to go to bed now. Daddy and I are going out to eat.”
Still later. “Mommy, you’ve been a bad girl. You can’t live in this house ever again.” The father doll answers, with conviction, “Good!”
A reassuring pat on the head from real Dad who was obviously enjoying the idea of having two women want him kept Mom from attacking her brazen challenger.
Level III Play
As children move into the elementary school years, the nature of their play changes. Because the latency aged child (six to eleven) is increasingly capable of a variety of complicated motor skills, has the ability to read and write, has independent peer relationships and has the capacity to consistently adhere to rules and tolerate frustrations, play is transformed. The impressionistic fantasies of playing house are replaced by the resolute rules of kickball, the grandiosity of dressing up in Mother’s blouse and high heels is muted by the torn pants and bruised knees of Capture the Flag and the omnipotent command of a fantasized space ship is decimated by the ignominious wail of “strike three!”
Once the capacity for Level III play emerges in latency, it continues to be used throughout life. Board games and ballet, baseball and billiards are enjoyed by eight- and eighty-year-olds (as player and spectator). However, although the form remains the same, the underlying developmental themes and challenges that energize the play changes dramatically, as we shall soon see.
In adolescence and young adulthood, when physical prowess is at its zenith and peer relationships are a major form of social interaction, organized games are the most characteristic form of play. This is reflected in the importance placed in nearly every culture on games played by individuals in this age group, be it participation in a high school basketball game in Indiana, a Ping-Pong tournament in China or, heaven help us, the frenzy of an English or Italian soccer match. Nor is the psychological impact of the games limited to the participants. The few hundred watching the high school football game and the billion or so who are glued to their television sets during the quarto-annual orgy of the World Cup are also at play.
Level IV Play
Level IV play is mental play. Although it reaches its most mature form of expression in the second half of life, it is also very common in childhood. In Level IV play, thoughts and words are substituted for actions. Even when play material such as cards are involved, they are of secondary importance, providing the springboard for transformations, abstractions and the formation of symbolic networks. Much of this play is originated and manipulated by the individual player, but the motor component (games), original fantasy (plays, novels and books) or auditory and visual stimuli (music or dance) may be provided by others. This is known as spectator play.
Watching and Listening: Spectator Play
When Grandpa takes his grandson to a ballgame, as they eat hot dogs and cheer for every home run, both are also hard at work mentally. Through identification with the players on the field, freckle-faced, glove-in-hand nine-year-old grandson, Harry, is dreaming of being a world famous shortstop, while sixty-year-old Grandpa, Mark, is nostalgically remembering pitching his college team to victory. Nurtured by their fantasy play and each other, when the game is over, the score soon forgotten, both Harry and Grandpa Mark return to the “real” world.
Listening to music is another extremely common form of play. Highly evocative and capable of stimulating an endless variety of fantasies and emotions, its ethereal, non-tangible nature is a perfect example of the abstract nature of Level IV play. From hard rock to Haydn, listening to music is an example of play in one of its most enjoyable forms.
Music with words, song, is particularly effective in this regard. “It was an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow polka dot bikini” or “I’ve got a brand new pair of roller skates, you’ve got a brand new key,” and “Baby, I want to make love to you” have helped generations of teenagers “play” safely with the tremendously stimulating business of adolescent sexuality by enveloping themselves in the suggestive rhythms, words and appearance of the most audacious music and popular groups. The necessary adolescent processes of psychological separation from parents and the establishment of an independent identity are also facilitated since everybody knows that what parents listen to is never “cool” and always “really dumb.”
The parents, in turn, nostalgically rework their own adolescence by listening to the music of their generation with an air of superiority that stems from the conviction that they listened to music that was in good taste, and definitely not as sexually explicit, while their children are obsessed with trash. It is not surprising that older adults are often attracted to the highly abstract aspects of classical music, which often deal with the end of life and the question of what comes after, such as Mozart’s “Requiem” or Strauss’ “Four Last Songs.”
Creativity and Play
Creative writing is definitely a form of play, because the author is stringing together fantasy and experience in a novel way. Unlike children, adults usually hide their fantasies, because their childlike quality and sexual and aggressive nature meet with internal and external derision unless they are couched in terms that make them suitable for the light of day, as in a novel. Unlike the child who is interested in focusing on spinning his own fantasies, the author of any sort must take into consideration the effect of his or her creation on the audience. By so doing, play blends with work, a blurring of boundaries that occurs frequently in adulthood. On the other hand, the playgoers or readers, who have no responsibility for the creative work or sharing their fantasies, are closer to pure play as they sit in their seats, keep their mental and emotional responses to themselves and experience a brief respite from the relentless pressures of work and reality.
In a similar fashion, reading diminishes mental tension by allowing the reader to play along with the author’s fantasies, nimbly deflecting the responsible for provocative responses from themselves to the author, who, after all, created the stimulating and potentially offensive ideas. Further, the reader is protected from the danger and hardships endured by the characters in the novel by the simple act of shutting off the Kindle, ending the play and returning to a momentarily less threatening reality.
The Organizers of Adult Play
Rumbling beneath the surface of most play in adulthood are powerful developmental forces, unique to the sixth, seventh and eighth phases of life, which transform the meanings behind the conventional forms and levels of play. Among these are the aging process in the body, the growing awareness of time limitation and mortality and conflicts over significant relationships, sex and work.
The BodyThoughts and feelings about the body are a major dynamic theme underlying play throughout the adult years. In the twenties and thirties this somatic influence is expressed through two contradictory and dissonant themes: the enjoyment of the body at its peak of competence and, toward the end of this phase, the painful awareness of physical decline and mourning for the fading body of youth. Pleasure and pain, joyful competence and the realization of loss push healthy young adult players to choose play-tasks that challenge them to the utmost, produce real exhilaration and achievement and at the same time perpetuate the youthful illusion of personal invincibility and invulnerability. This internal tug-of-war causes some thoughtful individuals to abandon those sports such as football or basketball, which tax the body beyond its slightly shrunken limits, and seek other forms of play that provide less physically strenuous challenges.
In addition to mourning for the lost body of youth, those approaching midlife must also relinquish their unrealized fantasies of athletic fame and fortune. As athletic heroes become first chronological contemporaries and then the age of sons and daughters, they become unsuitable subjects for identification who no longer bolster fantasies of future success. But the desire for eternal youth and perpetual glory die hard in some. These individuals continue to bask in the now pale glow of a faded past or are reincarnated in the bodies of sons and daughters or grandchildren who provide them with the perpetual gifts of youth and physical ability.
Bruce began therapy at age thirty-five because of sexual inhibitions and an inability to bring himself to marry. The victim of an abusive father who belittled his considerable academic achievement and ignored his outstanding athletic success, Bruce turned to sports as a major source of gratification and an acceptable outlet for his displaced rage. He was both admired and feared by his competitors, who were routinely defeated over two decades. But, now, for the first time, in his mid-thirties Bruce began to lose to the relentless assaults of a seemingly endless procession of younger guys. His reports of boasting, verbal assaults and temper tantrums after losing while “playing” became a major embarrassment to Bruce and allowed us to begin to explore his feelings about his father, getting older and the no longer successful use of sports as a substitute for sexual intimacy and marriage.
By the mid-forties physical play is, unfortunately, abandoned by some because of diminished ability and the pain of poor performance. Others continue to use athletics as a method of dealing with the aging process, compensating for the anxiety connected to the idea that “my body is not as competent as it used to be” with the compensatory fantasy “but it’s almost as good as it used to be.” The illusion is enhanced by the occasional great golf shot or the tennis backhand that zings down the line, momentarily conquering age and time. However, healthy midlife players of both sexes continue to get great pleasure (to say nothing of exercise) from their play, tempering its intensity in harmony with their bodies’ changing capabilities—more doubles, fewer singles, no more sandlot football—while continuing to experience the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
Those beyond sixty use physical play for all of the same psychological reasons as those who are younger, but in addition they are focused on maintaining body integrity in the face of the onslaught of age and ill health. While athletic forms of play continue to provide a mechanism for experiencing the fulfilling feeling of physical intactness, they also facilitate the accepting of aging, because repeated imperfect attempts at accomplishing complicated actions such as hitting a baseball thrown by a grandson or sinking a three-foot putt while having the “yips” are constant reminders of the body’s limitations.
Attitudes Toward Time
As young adults become middle aged, they begin to wrestle with the fact that you can’t live forever. As the realization of aging and eventually dying permeates every aspect of mental and physical life, play becomes a fanciful mechanism for attempting to master the impossible.
Physical games such as tennis and golf are like magic carpets, obliterating time. Unlike life, which has only one beginning, midpoint and ending, these games are a grab bag of starts and finishes that provide the soothing, symbolic luxury of the mastery of time and imperfection—again and again, alone or with partners or teammates. Demanding games such as football and basketball, in which time runs out, are usually played by the young, reveling in their abundant futures and unconcerned about time running out, except on the field. Older individuals participate in these sports primarily as spectators, shielded from the sting of time passing by rooting for their favorite players with whom they identify. And as every wife and girlfriend knows, there is always, I said always, another game on TV, so in a sense even though a particular game ends there is always another one to use to master Father Time, the grim reaper.
All forms of mental games are enjoyed for the same reasons. Played without physical exertion, they eliminate the unreliable, aging body almost entirely and instead rely on the rock solid Zen-like power of intelligence. Chess and checkers, rummy and bridge provide the arena in which adults may shine, nimbly conquering, for the moment, younger competitors as well as chronological peers and Father Time.
Various forms of gambling do the same thing. The wish to get rich quick, to get something for nothing, to rely on Lady Luck implies that one is special, singled out for favors by the all-powerful forces that govern the universe and control our destiny. The mundane is sucked out of the fairy lands of Las Vegan and Atlantic City by play money, free liquor, perpetual participation and the absence of clocks. Despite these efforts to blot out the awareness that nothing, including us, lasts forever; unwanted reality intrudes, symbolized by the silent slot machine, craps and a bust in blackjack.
Happiness comes to those in their seventies and beyond who, having wrestled with and accepted the idea that they will die, are more concerned with how death will come—with dignity surrounded by family and friends or painfully and alone. Playfulness in the later works of geniuses such as Picasso and Verdi may be a reflection of the acceptance of the notion of death. They, and healthy older individuals from all walks of life, are able to reflect joyfully on the wonders of human existence and calmly accept their limited place in the cosmic order.
Mature individuals recognize and accept the central position of change in life. This is particularly true for significant emotional relationships, which are in a constant state of flux. In midlife, in particular, healthy marriages deepen in significance, while others break up on the shoals of middle-age developmental issues. Parents become dependent and die, and children individuate and leave. As opposed to childhood, and in some respects to old age as well, the task is to sort out, categorize and set priorities among relationships in an effort to balance internal pressures and external demands.
Because it is a form of activity familiar to all, from the youngest child to the oldest adult, play provides a crucible in which relationships can be forged and maintained. When young children want to engage each other, be it a friend or a stranger, they ask, “Do you want to play with me?” Adults are not so forthright in their approach, but they, too, use play to form and sustain relationships.
Play is an important activity for cementing the relationship between parents and children. As Granpa John played catch with his son and grandson, he heard his son shout some familiar words: “Great catch, Billy. You did that like a pro!” Turning to his father, he beamed, “Remember when you used to say that to me, Dad?” But when the parents’ needs are pathological and excessive, the result is not so positive. For example, one of my adolescent patients had to contend with an overpowering father who pushed him into football and wrestling, sports in which the boy had limited interest and ability. In addition to loudly condemning his son’s every move from the stands, the father challenged the boy to head-to-head competition. Even a recommendation for psychotherapy for the father was turned into a contest. “Sure,” he said, “I accept your challenge—and I’ll finish before he does!”
Grownups also attempt to master current adult themes, as well as childhood experience, through “play” with their children. Using the analogy of the Corrida and the “Moment of Truth,” the point in the bull fight when the matador dramatically pauses before plunging his blade through the bull’s aorta, a moment of truth also occurs between parent and child when both recognize, if not acknowledge, that the child is stronger or more physically capable than the parent. Often the realization occurs during a play situation. So with only a touch of embarrassment, I will describe a “moment of truth” with my son, Tom.
When he was barely fourteen, Tom tauntingly challenged me to a tennis match. He boasted that he would defeat “the old man” 6-0, 6-0 for $20—money that he didn’t have. I readily accepted, since Tom had never come close to beating me, let alone by 6-0, 6-0, and I wanted to teach him a lesson. But, instead of recklessly pounding the ball on every stroke, which he usually did, Tom methodically returned every ball, every time, running me from side to side, until, totally exhausted, I quit at 4-0 in the second set, leaving behind a trail of invectives and four-letter words. To make matters worse, I refused to pay the debt, claiming that Tom had competed unfairly (my language was actually a bit more colorful than that). Self-analysis led me to realize the depth of my envy of my son’s youthful vigor as compared to my middle-aged diminishing stamina. As I worked through the experience mentally and emotionally, I gradually accepted the loss of power over a no longer dependent child and enjoyed a growing pride in his emerging manhood.
The sense of genetic immortality that galvanizes grandparents to their grandchildren is heightened through play. The conscious and unconscious fusion of memories from childhood and play activities in the present with the grandchild produces a profoundly gratifying sense of connectedness with the beginning of life rather than the end. But as those same memories tumble into consciousness in a seemingly unending flow, they are reminders of childhood friends, parents and grandparents and playmates who have died. Beginnings and endings, childhood and old age fuse, heightening the significance of loved ones, past and present, and the preciousness of time.
Sexual play is an integral part of adult fulfillment, enhancing enjoyment, heightening connectedness and stimulating the engagement and mastery of childhood themes. When a sexual relationship between two adults is mature and secure, it provides them with a framework within which to expose and act out their own childhood, adolescent and adult sexual fantasies and to become part of the fantasy play of another. Permission is mutually granted to use the two bodies as playthings, not so far removed from the play invitation extended many years before, “Let’s play house. I’ll be the Mommy, you be the Daddy.”
Sexual playfulness does not begin in adulthood. The toddler’s joyful touching of exposed genitals during diapering, the excitement of playing doctor, the pleasures of adolescent masturbation and the overwhelming rush which accompanies early sexual encounters are all examples of children and young adults at play, way stations on the path to healthy adult sexuality.
The failure to integrate sexual playfulness into the sexual repertoire in adolescence and young adulthood may be a significant factor in midlife dissatisfaction. Fifty-year-old Bernie left his “wonderful” wife of thirty years because of an incomprehensible sense of anger at her and the nagging feeling that he had missed out on youthful sexual adventure by marrying too young. He entered therapy after leaving her in order to decide what to do with his future. The early months of treatment were spent in his embarrassing elaboration of sexual wishes and fantasies, which he had been unable to experience with his wife despite her openness. Eventually Bernie began dating a much younger woman and acted on his fantasies, at first experiencing a great sense of exhilaration and playfulness that was highly gratifying. But in time the realization that he had little in common with “somebody as young as my daughter who’s dating me for what I can give her, and I don’t mean sexually,” led to the end of the relationship. After nearly two years of “playing around” with other ‘young things” and considerable work on his sexual inhibitions and fears of aging, Bernie returned home to an uncertain future with a woman who reluctantly agreed to give him “one last chance.”
Work and Responsibility
For most individuals, adulthood is a time of immense responsibility—for growing and grown children, aging parents and grandchildren; for the demands of work; and for partner and self in the present and the future (retirement). Play provides a safety valve from the pressure cooker of responsibility, furnishing an outlet for the powerful emotions generated therein. For example, in games played by individuals, the player is only responsible for himself or herself, not a dying mother or a troubled teenager. In group games teammates bear equal responsibility for victory or defeat; the load is shared. Then, too, as with all play, the consequences are miniscule, unlike the obligations of everyday life. Television, plays and movies appeal to adults for similar reasons. By climbing into the shoes of characters in make-believe situations, pressures and responsibilities can be confronted—and mastered—without risk or consequence.
Most people reach their highest level of work achievement and power in midlife and will advance no further. This sometimes painful reality can be compensated for through play. In the world of play and make-believe, continued achievement and maintenance of power are possible without concern about aging, obsolescence or the driving ambition of younger colleagues.
So the message is this: get off that coach, get out of that rocking chair and go and play. You need to, maybe not as much as children do, but for the same reasons. The stresses of adulthood are in their own way more daunting than those of childhood, and we all have a need to master the traumatic over-stimulation that characterizes our busy lives, to say nothing of the internal pressures that continually force us to deal with issues, relationships and experiences from the past and the present.
Go and hit that great golf shot, watch an action movie or see a good romance and relive a youthful love affair. Join the Monday night football crowd. Reread Portnoy’s Complaint. Take in your son’s, daughter’s or grandchild’s soccer game. Buy some new sexual toys. Whatever you do remember that play should be fun, but it’s also a marvelous way to master the stresses of life. Just do it!