Good play helps us rest in more satisfying ways, bond more deeply with friends and partners, work more productively, and grow resilience to burnout. So why are so many of us so bad at it?
Just like how “love languages” gave us a vocabulary to talk about and grow our capacity to give and receive love, I think understanding the adult play types (developed by Stuart Brown M.D. in his book PLAY: Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul) can help us carve out space in our busy lives for the surprisingly important act of play.
Below, you’ll find a printable PDF handout of Dr. Brown’s 8 play styles. To learn even more about play styles and how they can increase resilience to burnout, keep reading.
When it comes to adults, many of us think that we “aren’t very playful” or that we’ve “forgotten how to play.” I believe both as an artist and as a mental health professional that all of us have the capacity for play as adults – but locating it, valuing it, and giving ourselves permission to play is one of the biggest hurdles to using play to both rest better and work more productively.
In the book Play by Stuart Brown M.D., Dr. Brown makes the argument that while adults tend to be dismissive of play, play has been an essential part of all of the significant breakthroughs in the field of science, humanities, art, and basically any other fields you can think of. Innovation requires thinking outside the box, and what is thinking outside the box if not play.
Philosopher (and musician!) Stephen Nachmanovitch writes in the book Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art that play is like the movement of “galumphing” – it’s effort expended for no particular purpose. But in fact, play has a significant purpose – even for adults!
What Dogs Can Teach us About Play
Play is how we bond, form, and test relationships – playfulness makes these serious tasks fun and engaging. I think dogs are the best example of how play aids relationships and survival. The pay of dogs can often look like a vicious fight, but if you look very closely and know how to read a bit of dog language, you can see that play-fighting dogs are constantly checking in with one another to see if they’re still playing.
Although the behavior may appear aggressive, the dogs are clearly communicating in dog-language “Hey, I’m not a threat – we’re just fooling around!” In a feral dog pack, this play would serve the function of growing dogs’ skills to protect their pack, as well as forming and strengthening pack bonds – things that aren’t silly at all, but in fact necessary for survival.
Is play for humans really that different?
Download this Printable Handout of Adult Play Types
Because we live in a world where we can communicate through words, we often experience the illusion that communication is straightforward. However, it’s anything but! Even though humans have a wider verbal language than other animals, it would be odd (and actually, disruptive) to constantly check-in with our friends, family members, or partners about our feelings towards one another, about the quality of our bonds and about the security of our attachments. Play allows us to connect and check-in with one another in an informal, enjoyable way.
What Does Play Look Like for Adults?
Brown defines play as experiences that meet the following criteria: purposeless, voluntary, fun, outside of time (i.e. a flow state), less self-conscious, improvisational, and with a continuation desire (i.e. a desire to continue doing it once we have started)
In his book, Dr. Stuart Brown outlines eight play personalities. These eight play personalities are ways that researchers have categorized adult play.
Play for adults IS different than it is for children. For adults, we are less likely to participate in make-believe or building with Legos in the same way that children do, but our play develops into adult categories of play. These eight categories of ways that adults play are as follows:
Although Stuart Brown argues that these are separate play personalities, I would argue that most individuals I work with move in between these categories. You don’t have to choose one or another, but rather you can understand these as genres of adult play, and ways grown-ups expend energy in ways that are enjoyable, fun, and test the world around them.
Ways Adults Play:
The Joker is the classic class-clown. Although the image depicts a real-life jester, the Joker play style shows up in modern life as extroverts who love to entertain and make other people laugh. They’re the life of the party, the class clown, and the friend you can always count on for hilarious stories, reels, and TikToks.
The kinesthetic player plays through body movement. For the kinesthetic player, playing sports isn’t about the competition as much as it is about enjoying using their moving body in the world.
People who pursue body-based hobbies like trapeze, circus arts, rock climbing, and dance may be pursuing movement-based play – play that celebrates the body’s presence and movement in the world.
The Explorer plays through learning – they want to know and understand. This type of play is a way of exploring and orienting to the world. Time spent reading, traipsing through a forest looking for a particular bug or fern, or timing the perfect tide pool walk with the lowest tide of the month may be an Explorer-type player.
Although competitive play isn’t for everyone, for many adults it may be the only form of play that has received validation from friends, partners, or family. People who truly enjoy play for competition’s sake delight in the pursuit of a first-place ribbon, a trophy, or the huge handful of ski-ball tickets to trade in for the biggest prize.
The competitor play type plays to win, and the pursuit of that goal is, itself, a satisfying way to spend time and energy for a competitor-type player.
The Director plays through building systems and organizing. Their play could look like coaching Little League or organizing a church food drive. Folks who enjoy playing in this way find the experience of organizing, arranging, and directing as intrinsically satisfying.
Collectors are appreciators. They spend energy hunting, acquiring, and building a collection of useful, attractive, or interesting things or objects.
As kids, collectors are the kind to keep their baseball cards in protective wrappers or stuff their pockets full of interesting rocks. As adults, they may be wine collectors, keepers of art collections, or gardeners who curate botanically wonderous landscapes.
Finally, some adults play through Storytelling: finding the release of play through telling and listening to stories. They are the authors and the novel readers, but more so – they are people who craft narratives. People who play through storytelling are the folks who can see an ordinary situation and transform it into a fascinating narrative, weaving fact with imagination in a way that expends energy in a playful (and yet almost inevitably professionally useful) way.
The creative person is inherently at play when they create. Whether it’s a traditional artist who paints, sculpts, or draws or nontraditional creators like landscape contractors, model railroad builders, crafters, and even aquarium owners, people who delight in imagining new ideas and bringing them to life are all enjoying the play style of Creator.
Final Thoughts on Play and Burnout
Knowing our play style might seem frivolous, but when we understand the importance of our leisure pursuits, it’s easier to give them a place of priority in our lives. By harnessing the power of our preferred style of play, we can grow resilience to burnout through more satisfying work, through flow, and through knowing how to rest and recharge in satisfying ways.
To learn more about play and it’s critical importance in the lives of adults, see the resources listed below. These categories of play for adults are all adapted, illustrated, and expanded from the book Play by Stuart Brown M.D. pages 65-70.
PLAY: Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul Stuart Brown M.D. (2009) New York: Penguin Group.