How we play

The psychology of loving autumn in Juneau

Posted: Friday, October 25, 2002

The sun's gone down, it's pouring rain outside, you're done with work and you have a night to kill. What harm could there be in watching some TV and going to bed?

Actually, quite a bit, some health experts say.

Neglecting the need to interact with others and stimulate the mind and body - or play - can be detrimental to a person's mental and physical health, according to Stuart Brown, M.D., founder of the Institute for Play in Carmel Valley, Calif.

"Play is underrated in most societies today," said Brown, who spoke earlier this month in the University of Alaska Southeast Evening at Egan lecture series.

"I don't think the significance of play has sunk in with the human psyche," he said. "The play-deprived person will have either a masked or an open depressive state."

Many Juneau residents seem to have recognized the need for play, especially during Southeast Alaska's long, rainy fall. Any given week is full of opportunities to dance, sing, socialize or simply run around.

"Juneau, I think it is more conducive to play than urban areas in the Lower 48," said Elaine Schroeder, Ph.D., a Juneau-area counselor. "There's probably less workaholism in Juneau, and the opportunities around us are out of doors, which are free."

Playing outdoors offers two advantages for the price of one, Schroeder said. "You have fun and you get fit."

Play is not limited to the outdoors, though, or even to physical activity.

"Another wonderful thing about Juneau is you can get involved as a volunteer in arts," Schroeder said. "You can house speakers, play in the symphony ... It's just so immediate here. The scale is so small."

The definition of play varies depending on the individual and the circumstance, Brown said. Play can be sedentary, such as writing stories, painting or making jewelry, or it can be active, such as playing soccer, swimming or dancing. It can be solitary or social.

Matt Cecil, co-owner of the Rock Dump, an indoor climbing gym in Juneau, said his customers will climb alone for a half-hour workout, or they'll come in groups and have a climbing party that could last an entire afternoon.

People climb at the gym because "it's dry, it's fun, it's entertaining, it's not just sitting around doing nothing, it's exciting, and it's pretty social," Cecil said.

Climbing on a wall or splattering paint on a canvas are active ways of playing, but much of the time play is more a state of mind than an activity.

"It's where you're really absorbed in an activity, and you're able to just enjoy the moment," Schroeder said. Going for a long solo run or writing Christmas cards can be play.

Having the right mindset, though, comes easier for some people than others. Brown believes people are born with a "play aptitude" that can determine their ability to have fun. People with a high play aptitude naturally choose to make having fun a regular part of their lives. Those with a low play aptitude tend to take a more passive stance toward their situation and become numb.

Everybody has a capacity for play, though, Brown said.

"We're all at heart musicians and poets and creators," Brown said. "We need to give ourselves the freedom to use imagination."

Although certain situations are more natural times to play, using imagination and developing play skills does not have to be reserved for a special "play time."

"Play is not about time," Schroeder said. "Once you enter time in, thinking 'I've got to hurry up and have fun,' it's over."

Schroeder said her favorite time to play is when she takes her 2-year-old grandson to the beach.

"This isn't baby-sitting," Schroeder said. "It's when I feel the most relaxed ... I love it."

Play should be incorporated into everything a person does, Brown said, even work.

"People need to learn to incorporate play into our hour-by-hour existence," Brown said. "There is an ethos that if you're not serious you're not really working."

Bringing play to work can be more healthy, not only for individuals but for the entire company, he said.

"Look at Southwest Airlines," Brown said, referring to the fourth-largest commercial airline in the country. "They have the fastest turnaround time (the time a plane spends at an airport between flights), and they're always joking around."

Brown suggested that people with monotonous jobs can create stories in their imagination or make games out of their work. Managers and those in high-pressure situations can make slight changes in demeanor and the way they interact with employees to make work more enjoyable.

"If you're in an anxiety state, or if the outcome of what you're doing causes tension, there are physical and psychological consequences," Brown said.

Playfulness signals optimism, perseverance, flexibility, adaptability and creativity in an individual, Brown said. Those traits can help Juneau residents not only endure the fall, but enjoy it.

Christine Schmid can be reached at cschmid@juneauempire.com.



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