What is Play?

An 8-part blog series, helping parent couples reconnect.

A note on the Reconnecting Parent Couples Series: These eight posts present  perspectives and advice from respected colleagues and experts from across the world. I’ll also weave in my personal and professional discoveries and introduce you to aspects of my evolving relationship practice: Connectfulness.   


When it is incorporated into your daily rhythm, play can fundamentally shift everything about how you and the people you love relate to one another...I find that’s especially important for parenting couples to keep in mind.

So what gives? Why does the word and concept of play totally stress people out? Perhaps you are unsure about what play looks like.

“Play's a little like pornography in that you know it when you see it.” Jill Vialet, the CEO of Playworks

Well, duh!  But that doesn’t exactly help you start adding more play into the connections that fuel your daily life, does it?

So, what is play?

Play is a state of mind rather than an activity.

When at play you’re in a state of enjoyment. Your sense of  self-consciousness and sense of time are both suspended. Whatever you are engaged in, you want to do it again and again. Though you may feel  like it’s  purposeless activity, something important and healing is happening…

Play can be hard to define. It can include  so much. Humor, flirtation, games, roughhousing, storytelling, fantasizing, collecting, movement, exploring, competing, directing, creating.

Play looks like different things to different people, but here is what we know:

Play is a natural and biologically driven social exploration. It helps you learn about, and experience your world and your relationships by encouraging discovery.and feeding curiosity.

Play is inhibited and shuts down when you don’t feel safe (In my practice, when my clients can’t or aren’t playing in  their relationships I want to know more about what doesn’t feel safe. And we slowly begin our exploration there).

Play allows you to practice essential life and relational skills. It is full of triumphs and failures and everything in between.

Play is magical, integrative, and healing. It allows you to process, digest, and gain understanding about your life and your relationships. 

And perhaps most importantly, play happens in your mind. In fact, recent findings in neuroscience are showing that nothing lights up our brains like play does.

Why do we need to play?

We adult humans keep forgetting about the purpose of play, or we simply don’t value play. I get that, it’s so easy to do. When you are in the flow of play, it feels totally purposeless. And part of being a grown up is to have a clear sense of purpose, right?

We push children of all ages to play less & sit more. We are placing value on decoding and recall rather than comprehension and collaboration. Children are missing out on the experiential learning that they can only absorb through the process of play.

But then, it’s no wonder that we’ve taken the play out of children’s education - adults have eliminated play from their busy lives. they don’t know how to model or pass on something as purposeless as “just playing.”

We often think that as adults we shouldn't play, that we should stay serious and focused all of the time and that couldn't be farther from the truth. When couples are really stuck in the thick of stress, I suggest bringing in some kind of play. It can allow partners to connect in a light hearted way. It can also be a great way to reminisce and re-live the earlier days of the relationship when things were less stressful and more fun. Dr. Lily A. Zehner

We are designed to play throughout our whole lifetime

Play is very much a pre-programed social mammalian skill. Watch a pack of puppies, or a litter of kittens. How do they interact with one another and learn appropriate social behaviors?

They play!

They wrestle with one another, they push and pull on boundaries and they either get redirected by one another or mamma when they’ve gone too far or they tire out in a happy exhausted pile, content with one another.

And it’s not different for us humans. We learn how to connect in play.

Your sense of safety and trust in relationship are established through play signals such as eye-contact, facial expression, voice tone, posture, gesturing, timing and intensity of response.

In play, it's safe to fail, to fall get up and try again.  Play makes it easier to adapt and stay connected.  

If you want to keep growing, you must keep playing

Stuart Brown, MD author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul and the founder of the National Institute for Play says that when we stop playing, “our behaviour becomes fixed. We are not interested in new and different things. We find fewer opportunities to take pleasure in the world around us.

If you want to do more than merely survive in your relationships, you need to play. Couples who thrive know how to play.

Play reminds us not to take life too seriously. Couples often get stuck on recycling the "bad stuff" in their relationships and stop making new, fun memories. An analogy I like to use is that people have two rooms where they keep their memories of their relationships. One room has all the "good" memories and the other room has all the "bad" ones. How we feel about our relationship is how much time we spend in each room. By playing together couples spend more time in the "good" room and also develop new, happy memories. Mark Vaughan MAMFT, AMFT

When you start to make play your mindset — the attitude you use to approach life situations — you get to practice how you perceive and respond to other's emotional states in a safe, no pressure way.

Play is the glue that connects people to one another. In my next post we’ll dive deeper into how you can rediscover play if you’ve lost it, stay tuned!

>> Part 6 | Play Is Relationship Glue <<