The following is a passage from from Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown. Stuart writes beautifully.
The first quality of play that sets it off from other activities is its apparent purposelessness. Play activities don’t seem to have any survival value. They don’t help in getting money or food. They are not done for their practical value. Play is done for its own sake. That’s why some people think of it as a waste of time. It is also voluntary–it is not obligatory or required by duty.
Play also has inherent attraction. It’s fun! It makes you feel good. It provides psychological arousal. It is a cure for boredom.
Play provides freedom from time. When we are fully engaged in play, we lose a sense of the passage of time. We also experience diminished consciousness of self. We stop worrying about whether we look good or awkward, stupid or smart. We stop thinking about the fact that we are thinking. In imaginative play, we can even be a different self. We are fully in the moment. We are experiencing what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.”
Another hallmark of play is that it has improvisational potential. We aren’t locked into a rigid way of doing things. We are open to serendipity, to chance. We are willing to include seemingly irrelevant elements into our play. The act of play itself may be outside of “normal” activities. The result is that we stumble upon new behaviors, thoughts, strategies, movements, or ways of being. We see things in a different way and have fresh insights. You never really know what’s going to happen when you play.
Last, play provides a continuation desire. We desire to keep doing it, and the pleasure of the experience drives that desire. We find ways to keep it going. If something threatens to stop the fun, we improvise new rules or conditions so that the play doesn’t have to end. And when it’s over, we want to do it again.
These properties are what make play, for me, the essence of freedom. The things that most tie you down or constrain you–the need to be practical, to follow established rules, to please others, to make good use of time, all wrapped up in a self-conscious guilt–are eliminated. Play is its own reward, its own reason for being.
It’s paradoxical that a little bit of nonproductive activity can make one enormously more productive and invigorated in other aspects of life.