I recently used the intervention of Play to improve my own personal wellbeing as an assignment, and I loved it. Here’s how it went….
Like most professionals, sometimes my life can become demanding. I have two children (aged 6 & 7), run my own business, am undertaking the MAPP, am on the school P & C Committee, head up a Kindness initiative and try to stay fit, focused and social as well. Therefore, I’ve chosen to improve work/ life balance as my ultimate goal and have developed a Theory of Change to support this objective. I view work life balance as feeling present, engaged and fully invested in what I’m doing rather than a delineation of how I spend my time. I have identified three intermediate outcomes that will support my ultimate goal. They are 1) Developing stronger relationships, 2) Managing my stress and decreasing my recovery time from stressful periods and 3) Increasing playfulness and spontaneity.
The intermediate outcomes are all interrelated to each other and the ultimate goal and below I will expand on the assumptions I’ve made, current research and the interventions I’ve chosen. Please refer to the outcomes framework flowchart for how these connections flow together.
1) Developing stronger relationships
Developing stronger relationships will aid in developing work life balance as it will improve the time I have with my family and enable more playful moments. Social support has been well researched in the space of developing resilience and managing stress and Lyubomirsky remarks that turning towards others in times of stress and trauma is one of the most effective coping strategies that exist (Lyubomirsky, 2007).
Stronger Relationships can be measured by the PANAS-X Scale (Watson, 1999) or by the Relationships Flourishing Scale (Fowers, 2016). I also believe a key indicator in the success of this outcome would be the creation of more fun memories. The ‘Developing stronger relationships’ indicators will not be assessed.
Considering Lyubomirsky’s ‘Person Activity Fit’ diagnostic tool (Lyubomirsky, 2007), I have chosen the Loving Kindness Meditation (L.K.M.) as the most appropriate intervention here. L.K.M. is a meditation that guides the practitioner to develop positive emotions for the self, others and the greater environment. The dosage will be 10 minutes each day over a 10-day period and will be delivered via the Calm Mindfulness App (Loving Kindness Meditations, 2018). This intervention will not be undertaken.
In one 7-week randomised controlled study, participants assigned to the L.K.M. condition increased their positive emotions relative to the time they spent practicing. Changes in positive emotion were also considered durable as they were experienced during days where the L.K.M. was missed (Kashdan, 2013). It was noted that the positive experiences provided by the L.K.M. improved a wide range of resources, ranging from feeling more connected to others, to increased ability to handle life challenges (Kashdan, 2013). Connecting to others and managing stress are both relevant to my goals. Studies indicate that L.K.M. improves social connectedness, feelings of warmth for self and others and positive affect (Robinson, 2017). Increases in positive affective also states predicted prosocial behaviours and engendered greater trust and inclusiveness (Robinson, 2017).
Considering the above research, the assumptions I have made about the L.K.M. are that it will induce personal feelings of calm and connectedness, which in turn, will improve relationships and foster opportunities for playfulness. The L.K.M. will likely promote prosocial behaviour towards myself and others, and I’m assuming, will be both enjoyable and rewarding.
2) Manage stress and decrease recovery time
The second, and intermediate outcome is to manage stress and decrease my recovery time from periods of stress. I appreciate that with the number of commitments I have, this goal is much more realistic that trying to eliminate stress. It is this initiative that I will be focusing on. Stress is an inevitable part of life and this objective is about increasing my coping mechanisms, and in the words of Kellie McGonigal, “making stress my friend (McGonigal, 2013)”.
The PIP device measures electrodermal activity (EDA) and I will use it to gauge how my stress levels are and track how effective my intervention is at improving my recovery time. The second way to assess my stress will be the Perceived Stress Coping Survey (Cohen, 1994). This scale is based on thoughts and feelings over the previous month. These assessment tools will not be utilised.
In looking at my ultimate goal and the intermediate outcome of managing stress and decreasing my recovery time, I’ve chosen the positive intervention of engaging in playful activities. The dosage will be 20 minutes each day for 7 out of 10 days. Although not a common intervention, Play has sufficient evidence to qualify as a positive intervention and is capable of both assisting in managing stress and building coping strategies that aid recovery time. A positive psychology intervention should be grounded in theory and empirically-validated and include activities and recommendations that enhance wellbeing (Lomas, 2017). Play has an obvious role in childhood development, and “introduces us to social, emotional and physical skills needed to make the most out of life (Lopez, 2015).”
Play can be defined as an activity that is done for its own sake; It is not a means to an end, but an end in itself. Play is both motivating to the individual and associated with positive emotions (Kelly-Vance, 2007). In the words of Stuart Brown “We are built to play and build through play (Brown, 2010).” Research by Lyubomirsky also demonstrates that positive emotions potentially thwart the effects of negative emotions (Lyubomirsky, 2007) supporting my assumption that play can reduce stress and improve work/ life balance.
Play is a profound biological process that has evolved over eons in all animal species to promote survival, develop relationships and enhance ability to deal with stress and unique situations. Play helps shape the brain, it makes us smarter, more adaptable, fosters empathy and makes possible more pro-social behaviour. In human’s, Play lies at the core of creativity and innovation. (Brown, 2010)
I will endeavour to adhere to Brown’s properties of Play listed below as I implement my intervention to engage in playful activities. Brown states that Play should:
- Be done for its own sake
- Be undertaken voluntarily
- Hold an inherent attraction
- Generate feelings of flow and loss of time
- Diminish consciousness of self
- Have improvisational potential and
- Develop desire to do more of it(Brown, 2010)
I have brainstormed ideas for Play sessions that fit the above criteria and developed a table of opportunities for Play in Appendix 1. Play activities listed include; attempting to juggle, playing with my dog, soccer and balloon tennis. The activities are a starting point only and I anticipate that Play interventions are as many and varied as ice cream flavours, and perhaps even more appealing.
The use of Play in a therapeutic setting was first mentioned by Anna Freud in 1942 in relation to helping therapists develop trust and rapport with children in clinical settings. This concept was built upon by research from humanistic psychology and psychotherapy, until the field developed the title ‘Play Therapy’ in the 50’s (About Play Therapy, 2018).
Play, with its unique and complex blend of novelty, flexibility, imagination, social interactions and unpredictability, impacts the way our brain functions. Gene expression, brain chemistry and brain connectivity are all positively impacted by Play. (Lester, 2008) With regard to managing stress, I believe that Play contributes to the core elements of building resilience. Play supports an individual’s ability to regulate emotions, develop strong attachments, generate enjoyment and optimism and improves physical and mental health (Lester, 2008). Hence, Play has the ability to positively impact my three core objectives.
I have made the safe assumption that Play will increase positive affect. From personal experience, time spent at Play enables feelings of joy, anticipation, connection, contentment and an overall sense of wellbeing. The intervention of Play correlates with numerous positive psychology constructs. Firstly, it enables the Broaden & Build effect to take place and tips the scale towards building a Positivity Ratio (Fredrickson B. , 2013). Secondly, it fosters the VIA Strengths of Humour, Zest, Creativity and Social Intelligence (Proyer, 2011) and finally, the Play state can naturally induce the state of Flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
The Theory of Change diagram highlights the assumptions that I will be able to make Play a priority for 7 days and that I will be able to let go of my expectations and allow the moments of play to happen naturally and organically. (This will take some conscious effort; however, I’m determined to Play for the sake of Play and not in order to derive the anticipated outcomes.)
Pankseep highlights the need for the field of positive psychology to embrace a neuroscientific understanding of the primary-process positive emotions, one of which is Play. (American Journal of Play, 2010) Proyer goes further in proposing that positive psychology may serve as a new home for Play research (Proyer, 2011). Play is indeed a serious matter and I believe one that fit’s comfortably within the realms of positive psychology.
Play positively impacts the five domains of positive functioning (Rusk, 2014) and is a solid candidate for further research as a functional and accessible intervention. This framework also helped me qualify Play as a genuine positive intervention. The five domains of Positive Functioning (DPF-5) interact with Play in the following ways:
Virtues & Relationships – Within the VIA Framework, the strength of Humour was highly correlated with playful behaviour and a strong indicator of playfulness as was Zest, Creativity and Curiosity (Proyer, 2011). Play also has the potential to enhance group cohesion and serve as a “social lubricant” in various situations (Proyer, 2011).
Comprehension & Coping – Naperville High school has incorporated the PE4life program into their daily curriculum. They have dramatically increased the level of Play based physical activity in the school, and significantly increased academic performance, indicating student’s comprehension has improved. Their success to date has been demonstrated by the programs constant expansion (Wright, 2010).
In another study demonstrating how Play impacts coping, Panksepp found that Play enriched animals show less aggression in adulthood than do Play deprived animals. The same study also indicated that abundant Play in adolescence builds resilience to “stress-induced depressive responses” later-on (American Journal of Play, 2010).
Attention & Awareness – In the words of Stuart Brown “Play is like fertiliser for the brains growth” (Brown, 2010, p. 101). Jaak Panksepp, neuroscientist and psychobiologist, explains that Play is essential for optimal learning, normal social functioning, self-control and other executive functions to mature properly (American Journal of Play, 2010).
Emotions – Play moments induce a unique and somewhat intoxicating blend of positive emotions. Play may elicit joy, excitement, anticipation, wonder, jubilance, glee, humour, delight, bliss, elation, cheerfulness, amusement, interest or contentment. This plethora of positive emotions enables Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build Theory, which overtime will accumulate physical, social, psychological and intellectual resources (Proyer, 2011). There are few positive interventions with this potential to develop such a wide variety of positive emotions.
Goals & Habits – Play could indeed be viewed in this instance as both a goal and a habit. I believe that engaging in more Play will activate my Reticular Activation System (R.A.S.) and my brain will begin to unconsciously search out more moments of Play. Essentially, Play should hone my ‘Play-dar,’ a term I’ve coined that means my internal radar for opportunities to Play. I’m assuming, that the more I Play, the more I will want to Play, thus turning this transformative intervention into a lifelong habit.
Play was recently put into practice amongst three families in New Zealand to test the benefits of a real Play intervention over a four-week period. Families were given workshops and instructions on initiating and cultivating Play. Results ranged from more relaxed parenting to a sense of empowerment and freedom for the children (Walters, 2018). Parents commented that children were managing risk, employing social skills, developing confidence and became more independent through Play. One parent commented “I am less stressed, and the kids are much happier (Walters, 2018).”
Contrary to research into the benefits of Play, Panksepp proposed that lack of rough-and-tumble Play may be connected to ADHD (American Journal of Play, 2010). Best Play also listed consequences associated with Play deprivation. These ranged from reduced ability in motor tasks to lower levels of physical activity. Play deprivation also diminished ability to deal with stress and trauma, reduced social skills and the ability to manage conflict (Sutcliffe Play Ltd, 2000).
One point of contention in assessing Play as a serious wellbeing intervention, is the common misconception by many adults, that Play is a waste of time. Engaging in playful activities could be seen as the antithesis of productivity, and hence, become the unwilling adversary of our busy lives. Moving forward, Play research must address this bias to shift the stigma of Play into a positive space.
There were numerous limitations of this literature review. Firstly, Play is such a multifaceted intervention that to review all inter related fields would involve exploration into research from sociology, neuroscience, philosophy, education and developmental psychology. Hence, time has restricted the breadth of research done. Play Therapy specifically, is a deficit-based model. To date, clinical trials have been done extensively on children with significant trauma, behavioural conditions or mental illness. Although outcomes indicate Play Therapy has a positive impact, it’s application and sample are significantly different from my own personal objectives. Another critique of Play research is that it’s been “corrupted by industrialised societies as a mechanism for improving cognitive and social skills” which inherently devalues the broad range of positive outcomes that Play can elicit (Lester, 2008).
Despite the limitations, Play has untapped potential in improving work/ life balance.
3) Increase playfulness and spontaneity
The final intermediate outcome is to increase moments of playfulness and spontaneity. I believe boosting playfulness and spontaneity will positively influence my work life balance and enable me to become more flexible and mindful both personally and professionally. Play in this instance forms both the intervention and part of the outcome.
Indicators that Playfulness and spontaneity have increased will be anecdotally, experiencing more moments of spontaneous Play and more opportunities identified to create Play moments. Another indicator to assess playfulness is the Short Measure of Adult Playfulness (SMAP) which uses 5 questions to indicate easy onset of Play and the frequent display of playful activities (Proyer, 2011). These indicators will not be measured.
I assume I have all the resources required to engage in Play and that novelty in how I Play will have a positive impact. I believe that flexibility and spontaneity brought about by Play moments will be transferrable to other areas of life. Utilising Lyubomirsky’s ‘Activity Fit Assessment’ (Lyubomirsky, 2007) I feel that savouring would be a good fit both for me personally and with regards to the prior interventions of L.K.M. and engaging in Playful moments. The intervention of savouring will be undertaken as a daily journal to reflect on playful moments in order to fully appreciate the joy, connection and engagement that has been brought about by Play.
Savouring activates the ‘Broaden & Build’ Theory in fostering positive affect and the development of personal and interpersonal resources consistent with Fredrickson’s theories (Jose, 2012). Studies demonstrate that ‘habitual savourers’ are more likely to sustain a happy mood, regardless of life events compared with others who do not regularly practice savouring. The practice of daily savouring enables individuals to “make the most of the least (Jose, 2012)”.
Savouring of ongoing positive experiences will also improve my ability to cope with stress and adversity (Bryant, 2015). The savouring journal is attached as Appendix 2: Diary of Play experiences, and was almost as enjoyable as engaging in Play activities. The combination of L.K.M., playfulness and savouring interventions was deliberate, I anticipate if they were implemented over a longer period of time, with consistency, my work life balance would steadily improve.
Engaging in Play as a positive intervention over the last 10 days has brought about profound connection, moments of deep joy and a new resilience both personally and within my children. In reflection, I have been surprised at how simple, yet meaningful Play could be, as this did not appear in my research of Play. Rather than only creating moments of positive emotion. I found these moments of Play were deepening my sense of connection, meaning and purpose.
Emily Esfahani Smith in her TED talk ‘There’s more to life than being happy’ (Smith, 2017) describes four consistent pillars of meaning. These include 1) Belonging 2) Developing purpose 3) Transcendence and 4) Personal narrative. This resonated, and I connected my intervention of Play to each of these pillars. Smith doesn’t speak of Play specifically, but below I demonstrate how Play contributes to creating meaning.
Engaging in Play, my sense of belonging has improved considerably. I feel like my family see’s more of who I am, and have embraced this silly, random, sometimes just odd person as their own. Playfulness has given me a creative outlet to be me, and that has given my family an entirely new reason to love and accept me. In moments of Play I’m more open, authentic and engaged than any other time in the day. The first Play activity involved my son and ended with us laughing and snuggling at the beach. It was a beautiful moment of connection that was enabled by Play (9th August).
Belonging also was developed when Play erupted over dinner with my elderly neighbour, Val (Sunday 12th). We followed the kids playful lead, throwing scrunched up tickets into a glass, and spent a good 20 minutes laughing, creating shared memories and enabling joy and connection. Not only did Val feel included in our family, I felt an incredible sense of meaning and purpose in bringing this simple pleasure into his life.
My sense of purpose was always strong, but now I’m more passionate than ever about how I can apply my strengths (including my new-found strength of playfulness) to help others to improve their own wellbeing. I’ve put my strengths of Zest, Curiosity and Humour to good use and have found that they are highly correlated with the ability to engage in Play (Proyer, 2011) and that Play is indeed a good intervention for me personally.
Smith talks of transcendent moments that connect you to something greater than yourself. Play enabled me to simultaneously fill my life with zest and be more mindful of how I walk through my day. This interesting dynamic was perhaps core to how I have improved my work life balance and I see it as a driving force in my purpose. The moments of Play with a soccer ball at the skate park (18th August) enabled feelings of flow, self-efficacy and gratitude. Not only was I able to lose myself in the moment, I felt proud of my focus and found a burning desire to keep going and challenging myself to improve, just a little more. It was a beautiful feeling and I’ll certainly be taking a soccer ball to the skate park in future to Play and find that moment of Flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
Finally, my personal narrative around Play has changed considerably. Rather than believing I should make time for Play for the sake of the children, I now think to myself “There is always time to Play.” When Dylan, my 6-year-old son had a meltdown (17th August), rather than dis-compassionately bundling him off to school, I made time to engage him in Play. We took a detour to the lake and noticed the big blue sky, beautiful calm water and simply fed the fish, pelicans (and some cheeky seagulls). Within 5 minutes his mental and emotional disposition had changed entirely. Dylan went from feeling overwhelmed and disconnected to fully engaged and connected. This was perhaps the most meaningful of Play experiences, as I witnessed first hand the profound impact that Play moments have on building resilience and enabling the Broaden and Build Theory (Fredrickson, 2001). Dylan arrived 20 minutes late for school, feeling happy, connected and ready to engage in the day of learning ahead. Without this Play intervention I doubt this would have occurred.
Play certainly enabled deeper connections, brought about a plethora of positive emotions and improved my ability to manage stress. There were moments that I surprised myself by looking for a playful alternative to a challenging situation and times that I laughed at myself for the silliness I had created. The mood in our home shifted and despite ongoing work commitments, I found I felt lighter of heart and more present of mind. Play is certainly a great intervention for me, however I anticipate it may be less successful with a clinical population, or perhaps require a higher level of support in implementing it successfully.
My thinking gradually deepened from ‘Play is definitely a positive intervention worthy of further research’ towards ‘How can we develop a Play intervention for the general population?’ I appreciate that Play is defined loosely, and a large part of its appeal is that it is not a one size fit’s all strategy, but is flexible, dynamic and must tailored for the individual to be effective. How then, can we utilise Play as a positive intervention? Rather than prescribing how to engage in Play, I believe research should be conducted in developing a framework to guide a practitioner in creating unique and tailored Play interventions. This could target any number of possible objectives, including developing a sense of meaning.
The gentle shift in my mindset, towards “There is always time to Play” is the one factor, that will have a robust impact on my work/ life balance. Without physically measuring the three intermediate outcomes, I can only deliver anecdotal evidence. Play has not only improved my ability to manage stress and decrease my recovery time from stressful periods. Play has also had a significant impact on developing stronger relationships and increasing my playfulness and spontaneity. A key factor in the success of this Theory of Change has been the assumption that the more I play, the more I will want to Play. The experiment finished over a week ago, yet last night after dinner we taught the kids ‘thumb war’s’ and spent a good half hour laughing, connecting and creating moments, driven by Play. My Play-dar is now finely tuned.
Thus, my conclusion is that Play is an intervention with the potential to not only improve work/ life balance, but help the general population “make life better,” as is the intended aim of positive psychology (Lomas, 2017).
About Play Therapy. (2018). Retrieved from Australian Play Therapists Association : http://apta.asn.au/about-play-therapy/
American Journal of Play. (2010). Science of the Brain as a Gateway to Understanding Play – An interview with Jaak Panksepp. American Journal of Play.
Brown, S. (2010). Play. How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul. New York: Penguin Group.
Bryant, F. &. (2015). Appreciating Life in the Midst of Adversity: Savoring in Relation to Mindfulness, Reappraisal and Meaning. Psychological Inquiry. An International Journal for the Advancement of Psychological Theory, 315-321.
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Jose, P. L. (2012). Does Savoring increase happiness? A daily diary study. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 176 – 187.
Kashdan, T. &. (2013). Mindfulness, Acceptance and Positive Psycholoy. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications .
Kelly-Vance, L. &. (2007). Best Practices in Play Assessment and Intervention. In Best Practices in School Psychology (p. 549). Omaha: University of Nebraska.
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Appendix 1: Possible opportunities for play
| Stand up paddle boarding
| Skate boarding
| Jokes at dinner
| Zumba class
| Playing with Benson – Our dog
| Horse riding
| Hacky sack
| Hide & seek
| Mountain bike ride
| Bush walk
| Cup stacking game
| Mentos/ Coke experiment
Appendix 2: Diary of play experiences
Thursday 9th August
This was day 1 of deliberate play. I took my 6 year old son and a soccer ball to the beach and without any structure for the game we made up something totally random. Using football, soccer or basketball rules, you had to get the ball to one of two public rubbish bins. We played for perhaps half an hour, then after tackling each other, ended up hugging on the grass laughing, which turned into lovely snuggles. Definitely off to a good start.
Friday 10th August
Today I suggested to the kids we play hide and seek in our house. They were delighted and for around 40 minutes we took turns to hide and then find each other. Dylan consistently tried to fit himself into the dryer, and at one point, both kids were trying to find me in the spare room for ages, until I burst out laughing from behind the curtains. Interestingly, when I hid in our laundry cupboard, which was small and dark, I felt totally exhilarated. Perhaps it was the sensory experience of being squished into a small, dark space, or the feeling of anticipation at getting found, but it was exciting in a way I didn’t expect.
Saturday 11th August
This morning on my walk with Benson, our golden cocker spaniel, I stopped to do exercises at the exercise park. When I started doing sit up’s, Benson came to try wrestle with me and rather than shove him away, we had a lovely play session. He kept trying to stop me from sitting up and I kept gently wrestling him and roughing him up. Then while I did some yoga and stretches he stayed right by my side and I managed to both pat him and get some exercise in.
Later in the day as I was digesting research from play, and waiting for the jug to boil for another cup of tea to start work on the assignment, I grabbed three mandarin’s and started to juggle. Alone in my kitchen, this simple moment of spontaneous play had me giggling quietly to myself when I dropped them, or the mandarin’s clashed together comically. It certainly lifted my spirits and sharpened my focus before jumping back into the assignment.
Sunday 12th August
There’s an elderly gentleman named Val living a few doors down. We invited him out to a local club for dinner, and after the meal, the kids started throwing scrunched up raffle tickets into a glass in the centre of the table. Rather than shut it down, it led to a good 20 minutes where we all tried to get the tiny balls of paper into the glass. The spontaneous moments of play that were created were special. The play gave a sense of connection, created shared memories, enabled pure joy, and certainly brought laughter and a big burst of positive emotions. Interestingly, I found it immensely meaningful that we included Val in this interaction and felt elated that we’d brought this silly but simple pleasure into his life, if just for a moment.
Monday 13th August
Today I went to the Gym and did a class called ‘lite pace.’ It’s generally filled with older ladies and a much lighter atmosphere than other classes. With the music blaring mostly 70’s classics, some of the ladies started swaying and dancing to the beat while working out. Normally, I’m pretty indifferent, but today joined in and found myself laughing more, talking more and generally enjoying the gym class much more than usual.
Tuesday 14th August
This morning my husband started work a little late and I wanted to make the most of it. We got a wooden spoon each, blew up a bunch of balloons and played ‘balloon tennis’ before school. It was loads of fun and really changed the energy in our home before everyone went their separate ways. The kids loved the energy we created and my husband enjoyed this silliness too.
Wednesday 15th August
We had dinner tonight at my parent’s home. My Dad loves a good joke, so when he told us one we reciprocated, got the kids involved and it turned into an evening filled with belly laughs. The kids loved it and we’ve been tasked to BYO jokes next time we have dinner there. It seems to have opened up a new ‘play’ repertoire for our family and I envision my husband will start bringing jokes home from work.
Thursday 16th August
This morning after breakfast Laura and I played the cup game. I was reminded of the cup game after watching Pitch Perfect and found a You Tube clip of the rhythm. Laura and I spent 15 minutes just practicing it until we both got it down pat. There was lots of laughter, a little bit of frustration and a whole lot of concentration but we got there. She then took two plastic cups to school to teach her best friend, so they could play it together.
Friday 17th August
Dylan, my 6-year-old son was tired, irritable and just a bit of a mess this morning. He was sobbing getting ready for school and didn’t want to eat breakfast, brush his teeth or comply with any reasonable request. Rather than force the issue, I bundled both kids into the car, grabbed some old bread and went down to the lake to feed the fish. As soon as they realised we weren’t going straight to school (and we were obviously going to be late) Dylan perked up. We spent the next 20 minutes feeding fish, laughing at the pelicans and chasing sea gulls away. It totally turned around the morning and they both went to school happy and content after just a little detour to play. It makes me wonder how many opportunities for play I’ve missed over the years.
Saturday 18th August
The kids love going to the skate park. Today I took a soccer ball to play with while they were riding their scooters. I used to enjoy soccer and just wanted to practice keeping the ball in the air using different soccer skills. I was totally engaged with the game and found a state of flow in the activity. Even though my skills aren’t great, the process of just playing and improving felt fantastic and the time at the skate park flew by. I’ll definitely be taking the soccer ball in future.