It was all fun and games until someone smacked Don Norman in the head — hard — with a feather pillow. Walking into his first two-hour “Playing in the Deep” session, a weekly organized event in Portland, Maine that engages stressed-out grownups in childlike activities, Norman, a 48-year-old database administrator, didn’t know what to expect. Then he saw the pillows, a big pile of them, stacked high. Everyone around him grabbed one and was suddenly roughhousing like over-caffeinated kids at summer camp. Someone handed him his own pillow, but he simply held on to it, too inhibited to let his freak flag fly. He considered bolting.
“And then I got hit!” Norman recalls. “I figured, ‘If they’re going to hit me, I’ll hit them!’ By the end of the night, I was running around like a madman, and I forgot all about my self-consciousness. I forgot about everything. It was liberating.”
“I’ve seen a steady increase in invitations for adult play,” says game designer and self-proclaimed “fun theorist” Bernie De Koven, author of The Well-Played Game. “Now that we no longer have the same sense of community at work or in our neighborhoods as we did twenty or thirty years ago, these opportunities for play are filling the gap.”
The events may consist of kiddie games, but there’s often a serious psychological, even spiritual purpose behind them. “People need to feel they’re connected to other people,” says Cary Umhau, the cofounder of Spacious, who says she was inspired by the adage “Love Thy Neighbor.” “Most people are trying to numb themselves out from just the pain of life. If they don’t have addictions, they spend much of their life watching TV. They need places to come together, to step out of the box and out of their social silo.”
More and more adults are understanding the psychological benefits to playing and making time to let their hair down (or pull it up into a ponytail and go hog wild!), from less sick days to a larger community to helping solve a project problem at work. Even if it’s something as small as giving the barista a silly name the next time you order coffee (I am Batman!), it’s enough to get your brain cells firing and keep it healthy.
How do you squeeze in playtime for yourself? Share your ideas in the comments below.