Playing with the Box

The April issue of Spirit, Southwest Airline’s in-flight magazine, shows a group of kids playing outside on its cover. That makes sense with spring right around the corner.  Surprisingly, though, the associated article inside discusses why adults should play more.  The article’s opening example is illustrative:

Unbox a toy for a toddler and as often as not, the child will play with the box instead of the toy!

Why?  Because the box is more fun!  It can be anything – a hat, a fort, a cup, a ship.  On the other hand, modern toys are typically activity specific, which allows for little imaginative input by its recipient.

Lessons Learned

This doesn’t mean toys are bad. It means boxes are good!  Specifically, Jay Heinrich, author of the “It’s Called Play” article noted above, cites the following lessons we can learn from playing with the box;

  • Fancy toys, programmed activities, and “enrichment” don’t hold a candle to a kid’s own improvising.
  • Unsupervised activity of the kind that terrifies modern, safety-obsessed parents can be good for developing brains and bodies.
  • Outdoor trumps indoors, fitness-wise.
  • Adults can benefit from the same sort of pointless, stupid activity [as playing with a box].

Heinrich cites two recent studies that support the theory that play is good for adults too.  The first is Stuart Brown’s co-authored book Play, which states play “makes us more flexible and adaptable.”  We’ve long known that exercise is healthy, but Brown and his colleagues are going a step further.  They’re finding that joining exercise with fun allows us to make new cognitive connections.  The result is that we’re happier, more alert, and healthier.

This conclusion is supported by UCLA professor Toni Yancey, whose book Instant Recess proposes that that short 10-minute bursts of play-like activity boosted her subject’s performance, “psychosocial factors,” and health.

The Point of Pointless

As we mature into adults we stop playing for many reasons.  The demands on our time grow and we (unfortunately) develop the notion that playing is unproductive and pointless.  Au contraire, is what Brown and Yancey counter.  They point to the positive benefits of play to make their point.

  • Laughing.  Laughter releases feel-good endorphins while suppressing stress hormones.  It also strengthens the immune system.
  • Moving. Most of us live a sedentary lifestyle and we could all stand more exercise.  Playing makes exercise fun.
  • Imagining.  As adults, it seems the more we know the less we can imagine.  Playing promotes the imaginative side of our brain – the right side – giving greater support to the left side.

Unstructured activity is apparently a panacea of positive for everyone willing to step back in time and loosen up a little.

The Most Important Benefit

One of the most compelling reasons to engage in playing is it’s restorative effects.  Numerous studies have found that people who take short, unstructured breaks throughout the day remain more focused and more productive when they get back to their desk.  Moreover, they enjoy their work more, which makes it a win-win for employer and employee alike.  (A full review of these studies can be found in Tony Schwartz’s book The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working.)

Scheduling Play Breaks

Most of us can’t step all the way back to sun drenched summer afternoons playing stickball.  But we can get some of that carefree activity back.  For example, parents schedule their kids for play dates.  Why can’t we – the parents – schedule ourselves for play breaks?  Instead of consuming hours of time at play, we can encapsulate these renewal periods in short, 15-minute breaks.

But what to do with this new unstructured time?  Here are some activities that work inside or outside and in or in near proximity to the office:

  • Nerf Basketball or Nerf Football.  Both are easy to play and require only one (basketball) or two (football) people.
  • Paper Triangle Football.  This grade school lunch table game is easily reincarnated using a desk or conference room table.
  • Treasure/Scavenger Hunt.  An enterprising individual can engage a whole group of people either inside or outside the office.
  • Cloud Characters.  Lying on the ground just imagining shapes into animals and objects just sounds relaxing, doesn’t it?

Making the Most of the Time We Have

In the trek up to adulthood, we discarded playing as childish.  As fun as it was, it just didn’t fit into our world any longer.  Now, there appears to be some solid science behind the idea that reintroducing some playtime into our frantic schedules can have positive mental and physical consequences.

Besides, who doesn’t want to be a kid again?

© 2012, Paul H. Burton. All rights reserved.


  • http://mybalancedsheet.com/ Frank @ My Balanced Sheet

    Paul, thank you for this post. With an 8 month old at home, I have seen first hand the power of boxes, wrappers and other such “discarded” items that can work magic on a child’s imagination.

    I know this post is old, but I had to comment. I will be following your blog moving forward!

    • Paul H. Burton

      Hey Frank. Thanks for your comment. I was just looking at this post earlier today (it’s only a month or so old) in relation to a great post on http://www.bemorewithless.com, a blog I follow. It’s amazing what imagination can produce with what’s at hand! We (adults) need to remember that even more in this distraction-riddled world!

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