boy running during sunset

Embracing the Art of Play

We often look back on our childhood with great reverence and adoration. A time when we were not yet burdened with the responsibilities and demands of adulthood. When the only limitations and boundaries we faced were the limits of our imagination.

Learning about the world and experiencing things for the first time we were often in a perpetual state of awe and wonder.

A state of play.

This essence of euphoria and enjoyment for the world however starts to fade as we transition into adulthood. We are no longer able to find joy and awe in the mundane aspects of everyday life.

Life transforms into something that must be taken seriously, and the idea of play becomes trivialized. Something we only feel justified engaging in if we have spare time after completing our work, responsibilities and obligations.

Furthermore, we are told that time is money and conflate ‘busyness’ with importance. Thus, we feel guilty in indulging in leisure or any sort of ‘unproductive’ activity.

Every minute must be planned and calculated. No time must be wasted.

Photo by Helena Lopes on

Instrumental vs. Intrinsic Values

We can divide our motivations for pursuing certain activities/things into two categories – instrumental and intrinsic values. 

Instrumental value is something that we pursue to achieve some other goal. To illustrate this point, we can look at our incentives for work. Many of us work not because we enjoy doing so[1] but rather out of necessity – to earn a living and survive.  Other examples of instrumental thinking include:

  • Getting an education to get a good job;
  • Working a prestigious career because it brings you high status;
  • Jogging for the health benefits it brings you.

I want to emphasize that these are all valid reasons for pursuing worthy goals. The point is however is that they are not done for sake of themselves. They are simply means to ends.

The logic is, only after achieving X {dream job, promotion, a certain salary, marriage etc.} I can be content. Happiness is deferred to the future.

On the other hand, intrinsic value is something that is appreciated in and of itself. These are the core reasons why we pursue certain goals. One way to get at what is intrinsically valuable is to ask a series of questions which get at the root cause of your motivations.

Suppose your life is made up of things you do for the sake of something else — you do A in order to get B, and you do B only to get C, and so on. Therefore, A has no value in itself; its value lies in the B. But B has no value in itself: that value lies in the C. Perhaps we eventually encounter something — call it Z — that’s valuable for what it is in itself, and not for anything else.

Mark Rowlands, Tennis with Plato

For Aristotle, his notion of eudaimonia, roughly translated as happiness or human flourishing, is something that has intrinsic value. Things such as having a successful career where one enjoys their work or having financial freedom are sought after because they allow for one to attain happiness.

Let us look at some other examples:

The Rise of Machines

So how does this tie into some of the current issues we face today?

The prominent sociologist Max Weber claimed that modern societies were trapped in an ‘iron cage’ of rationalization. With the loss of traditional values and social ties, the modern era is governed by the ethic of efficiency and rationality.

The ideal of material progress has allowed us to create effective and innovative corporations and bureaucracies which have enabled significant increases in our living standards. However, it has come at the cost of the stripping away of human sympathy, emotion and dignity.  We are transformed into numbers on a spreadsheet, cogs in the machine and mere instruments required to keep the system running.

Consequently, we become more akin to robots or machines than sentient human beings.  The intrinsic value and dignity as a human being is all but lost.

Weber’s critique of modern society is that it is governed by instrumental reason and utilitarian values.  For the sake of greater efficiency and productivity, we transform human activity and interactions into something measurable and quantifiable. Social media fosters intense competition for status as we chase after more likes, comments and shares then our peers.  

A consequence of this mode of existence is that our relationship to the world becomes primarily extractive. Our focus becomes consuming or having things rather then experiencing them in and of itself.

Photo by ThisIsEngineering on

Reclaiming Play

It’s a cliché in our culture to hear the phrase ‘do what you love’, what does that even mean?

On a deeper level I think it is connected to play. We play when are deeply engaged in something because we truly enjoy it, irrespective of any reward or social benefit it may bring us. It awakens us to the present moment.

 Diane Ackerman in her book Deep Play discusses moments of play when we are completely immersed in the moment. It bears resemblance to the concept of flow which I have written about before.  She writes,

Deep play arises in such moments of intense enjoyment, focus, control, creativity, timelessness, confidence, volition, lack of self-awareness (hence transcendence) while doing things intrinsically worthwhile, rewarding for their own sake…It feels cleansing because when acting and thinking becomes one, there is no room left for other thoughts.

Diane Ackerman – Deep Play

This is not to say we must detach from our obligations and responsibilities as adults. Rather, it is to emphasize the importance of carving out a space or time to immerse yourself in play. A space where you can temporarily forget about expectations and the world around you.

Where you can feel alive.

When you can to let go, be in the present and be free.

Photo by Daryl Wilkerson Jr on

Play, you see, in the sense that I am using it is a musical thing. It is a dance. It is an expression of delight

Alan Watts

[1] According to a 2017 global Gallup poll, 85% of workers surveyed were not engaged or actively disengaged at work.

This article was originally posted on my personal blog

Featured image source

7 thoughts on “Embracing the Art of Play

  1. Wonderful post! Play is vitally important for anyone leading a meaningful life. I think one of the largest issues is how we portray play in some kind of toddler-like image of plastic trucks, dinosaurs, dollhouses and building blocks. I like how you illustrated play as something that can take an infinate variety of forms. Play can be reading a book, creating art, exploring the natural world, hanging out with friends or any number of activities. Expanding the way we portray play and the values it brings us will be key to changing our mindset.
    One other aspect that I have been thinking about quite a bit is how play is something that sets us apart from the machines we are creating. I don’t want to specifically make an intrinsic value into something that is instrumental, but as a means to convince some of the skeptics I offer this perspective: so many of our industries and employment options are being taken over by AI and mechanical processes. In the recent years we have even seen AI begin to create jazz, paintings and to take on other tasks traditionally seen as “creative”. It is quite imaginable that computers will be able to replicate most everything we do for work. Play, however, is unique to biological life and cognition. Embracing this and other unique aspects of what it means to be human will be vitally important for moving forward in a world in which work is no longer something that humans do…or where we need to be good at a niche of things which computers cannot. I argue that embracing play and curiosity are ways that we can strengthen the unique human abilities for lateral thinking and making cognitive connections across experiences. This ability will help us navigate a world in which “rational” tasks can always be done better by a machine.
    That, along with being able to live a more meaningful life…what could be better!

  2. This morning I read an article on an Italian blog where the author outlined that we don’t need to be scared of Artificial Intelligence, because we will soon all become robots to make the system running its procedures. Now I have just finished reading yours and I read “Consequently, we become more akin to robots or machines than sentient human beings”. What I find amazing is that two people in two different parts of the world, without knowing each other, the same day express the same concept. This gives me hope. Thank you Andrew for this inspiring post!

  3. Thank you, Andrew, for this wonderfully rich post! I intrinsically loved every word of it! I’ll be looking forward to your next post—not to get anywhere; just for the sheer enjoyment!

Leave a Reply