Finding Your Heart Play

By Heather Burcham

Play — the word conjures up memories of favorite childhood games and playmates, imagining, competing, creating, and discovering the world around us as we grew up through play. It may remind some of us of board games or video games, or perhaps our favorite sport. For most of us play is just a memory of childhood or something we enjoy watching our own children engage in. But what if someone challenged you to incorporate play into your every day as an adult?

First you might examine what play means to you. Play comes so naturally to children, and yet play takes on such complex meaning after crossing the threshold into adulthood. Certainly you don’t expect me to build a town out of LEGOS at my age! And it’s true, play looks different for adults.

According to psychologist and play researcher Stuart Brown, play is a state of mind more than an activity. It often appears purposeless, yet is automatically reinforcing. When we are truly engaged in play, we lose track of time and achieve a sense of diminished self-consciousness, no longer criticizing ourselves or worrying about how others might perceive us. Play results in joy and leads us into a state of flow, or being “in the zone.”

What constitutes play for one person may not be play for another. Barbara Brannen, author of The Gift of Play: Why Women Stop Playing and How To Start Again (iUniverse, 2002), writes about finding one’s “Heart Play,” which she describes as being “unique to every human being on earth. It allows you to be totally in the moment, involves no unwelcome work, and comes without responsibility. It creates an ecstasy that may not be apparent to anyone but you.” What is your Heart Play?

Junichi Shimaoka, Psy.D., staff psychologist at the University of Michigan’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), has studied play extensively and started a campaign across campus that urges students to “Do Something and Play,” aiming to change the culture of campus from an all-work-and-no-play achievement-focused value system, to one that values personal development and wellness through play, in addition to academic learning. In a recent interview, Shimaoka explained that he has adapted the play personalities outlined in Stuart Brown’s Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (Avery, 2009) to urge students to examine what play means for them. “In the book, he started to talk about different personalities, or preferred play activities that people have. So that’s where I borrowed this idea of eight different play personalities, thinking, ‘that would be a fun way for people to think about, what do I like to do?’ We thought it would be fun to have — what kind of play personality are you?”

The eight play personalities Shimaoka outlined, based on Brown’s book, include the Explorer, who enjoys visiting new places, whether they be physical, mental or emotional; the Director, one who plans events or organizes activities; and the Kinesthete, who plays through movement. Shimaoka himself identifies with kinesthetic play, finding joy in practicing flow arts. He shared: “I started getting into flow arts: spinning poi, circus arts… hula hooping, spinning fans…[These are called] flow arts because you can really feel the flow, manipulating objects, really expressing yourself.” Adding, “But also the mindfulness kind of thing, you’re really in the moment, connected with yourself, but also your prop that you’re spinning or manipulating. That positive psychology of the positive and optimal — the idea of flow, being in the zone, being in the moment. That’s a really nice place to be.”

Other play personalities include the Collector, who finds joy in holding onto the objects or experiences that they find most interesting; the Artist, who loves creating things; and the Storyteller, who engages in play through getting lost in a story.

There is also the Competitor, who enjoys the thrill of winning and engaging in competitive games. Josh Sherry, Director of League Operations at the Ann Arbor Sport & Social Club (“where Ann Arbor comes to play”), enjoys team sports as a way of incorporating play into his everyday life. His club offers opportunities for adults in the community to join a recreational sport if they find their “Heart Play” in sports. “When you think about that word — play — that word is kind of juvenile. It reminds me of being a kid in elementary school, and asking someone to come out and play.” He added that at the Ann Arbor Sport & Social Club, “We really focus on elementary school games, so we do kickball, dodge ball, flag football, beach volleyball, indoor volleyball, corn hole. We do bowling. Everything that we do is co-ed, [and] everything is super social.”

The eighth of the play personalities is the Joker, the one who loves to make others laugh. Carolyn Christopher, local Laughter Yoga Leader, fits the bill, leading others in laughter, not by telling jokes, but by sharing laughter as a way to achieve wellness. Laughter yoga is a unique concept that combines yogic breathing with laughter exercises that foster wellness in the body, mind, and spirit, as well as social connections with others. “I find it so marvelous in terms of getting folks to look at the world from a different perspective,” Christopher divulged. Christopher went on to describe the value in setting one’s inner child free to express itself through the playfulness of laughter. “I truly believe life is so stressful now from so many different angles that people just need to let go, and laughter yoga surely does that.”

Many adults don’t readily buy in to the idea of play, however. “The exercises we do are pretty playful — that alone is the playfulness aspect of [laughter yoga]. I don’t stress the playfulness of it. I really focus on the health benefits of it,” Christopher explained. “When you start talking about playfulness people just don’t seem to warm up to it as easily, so I started to focus on the health benefits.” Shimaoka agrees that adults seem to have a hard time wrapping their heads around play. “[Regarding the] differences between kids and adults, I think the essence of the playful activity would be the same. I think adults would have a much harder time, because over time, I think we are molded into thinking everything we do should have a purpose, some sort of outcome or reward,” he suggested. “Play feels like there’s no concrete reward. It’s not going to give you money, it’s not going to give you a reputation, [so adults think] you’re just wasting time… I think people really enjoy it but they just feel bad to take ownership of it. They are doing playful stuff, but there has to be an excuse.”

For adults looking for an excuse to play, look no further. Research shows numerous health benefits of play, not only for children, but for adults as well. Shimaoka said:

There’s plenty of literature [showing] the benefits of play for kids — creativity, socialization, resiliency. More and more there’s literature for the benefits of play for adults. People are noticing the benefit of play. The productivity actually goes up, [and] the work-life satisfaction goes up when people are able to take breaks and encouraged to play. So creativity goes up, they are reenergized, it’s stress-relieving, really connected in the present moment. All the benefits are there for adults.

Work places like Google are recognizing the productivity and creativity implications of play and have incorporated play into the workplace. Still, play rarely crops up in the culture of the average adult workplace, making play a personal choice that must be thoughtful and intentional.

To encourage young professionals to find time for play during the work week, Josh Sherry’s Ann Arbor Sport & Social Club schedules events on weeknights. By being a part of a sport Monday through Thursday, “it breaks up your work week, so you have something to look forward to during the week,” he suggested. “An opportunity to go play some sports and bring back some of your grade school days with some fun.” His club also partners with local bars and restaurants to host post-game social hours with discounted drinks and food for team members. Playing together beforehand breaks the ice to foster new friendships and a sense of community.

In addition to play’s productivity, creativity, and work-life related benefits, play also offers adults increased energy and self-confidence, a renewed sense of vigor for life, exercise through kinesthetic or movement-related play, and stress relief. Researchers have also found that play increases positive mood, and helps us to develop resilience, independence, and resourcefulness. Play can also lead to stronger social bonds and overall positive psychological functioning.

Play can change our lives if we let it, providing a pathway to reconnecting with our younger selves. It can help us rediscover ourselves and our worlds without self-criticism or concern for the judgments of others. It can remind us of all that life has to offer beyond the confines of our careers or adults responsibilities; freeing our minds, bodies, and spirits to experience life fully, with energy and enthusiasm, creativity and connection with others. Finding your Heart Play can open the door to countless other personal discoveries and experiences waiting to enrich your life. So I wonder, how can you incorporate play into your every day?

For more information about Junichi Shimaoka’s “Do Something and Play” campaign, visit For more information and to sign up for the Ann Arbor Sport & Social Club, visit To learn more about laughter yoga and opportunities to laugh with Carolyn Christopher, visit

Posted on December 31, 2015 .