FREE CHAPTER: PLAY from Age of Agility


(This is a free chapter from my book Age of Agility. Now available wherever books are sold!)

Newton was at play in his mind when he saw the apple tree and suddenly conceived of the force of gravity. Watson and Crick were playing with possible shapes of the DNA molecule when they stumbled upon the double helix. Shakespeare played with iambic pentameter his whole life. Mozart barely lived a waking moment when he was not at play. Einstein’s thought experiments are brilliant examples of the mind invited to play.

What was your favorite subject in elementary school? Most kids I ask tell me recess, which was mine also, with lunch coming in a close second. So, what happened to recess? Somewhere between kindergarten and high school, recess is phased out of our day. By the time we get our first full time job, breaks are used to catch up on side projects, to schedule appointments, and frantically check bank accounts so our bills get paid on time. There is little room for us to work on creative projects, play games with friends, or socialize—the very same things we loved to do when we were kids during recess and at lunch. We’ve been told that life isn’t all fun and games, but it isn’t all work either. And not having free time to play is hurting us in ways we didn’t previously account for.

Sleep researcher Kristen Knutson at Northwestern University analyzed sleep diaries from several studies involving thousands of participants from the year 1975 to 2006. She found that people have been consistently getting the same number of hours of sleep. Meaning, modern society isn’t sleeping less. Why, then, do we all feel so tired? Knutson found that although we are not sleeping less, full-time workers are working longer hours. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, the average full-time worker is putting in 47 hours per week, nearly a full work-day more than the traditional 40-hour week. If we are working more, this leaves less time for recess and lunch, in other words: play. Having free time for play invigorates us with a new perspective on life and it bonds us with others. It gives us a break from the stress at work and invites us to use our imagination. Play was something we never had to account for, and now with the average worker spending more time in the office, play may be the key to treating workplace fatigue and disengagement.

So, what is play? In its most basic form, play is anything we do for the pure enjoyment of it, not because it is a means to an end. As simple as it sounds, behavioral researchers were all wrong about why we play until Harry Harlow observed some peculiar behavior at his University of Wisconsin-Madison lab in 1949.

Harlow was a psychologist, famous for his research in cognitive development. If you ever took a class in psychology, he’s the one who discovered that caregiving and companionship in infants is more important than food (wire monkey mother with bottle vs. cloth monkey mother). One morning, Harlow walked into his lab and found the rhesus monkeys solving wood puzzles that were accidently left in their cage by researchers. This was odd, because the monkeys were doing the puzzles without any rewards. The monkeys were working purely out of curiosity. After some time fiddling around with the puzzles, they figured out how to solve them. There wasn’t a reward for solving the puzzles, no food, affection, or applause. Up until Harlow’s observations, the scientific community only knew about two drivers to action—pain and pleasure—and both were externally driven. For example, if a stick hits a tree, fruit will fall, and the monkey can now eat a sugary treat. The monkey will hit the tree again when they are hungry because they know hitting a tree with a stick brings pleasure. Here’s another example. If a male monkey makes advances towards a female that are not reciprocated, negative actions follow, usually involving a stronger dominant male. When the monkey is physically injured and feels pain, he learns to never go near that monkey again. If action x is performed, y is the reward (positive or negative). Harlow offered a new perspective: the performance of the task itself could be a motivator. In other words: curiosity and play were as strong (or stronger) motivators than pleasure and pain. Thanks to some 13-pound primates and a wooden puzzle, we now know that play in itself can be a reward, and this is where intrinsic motivation begins.

Like the rhesus monkeys, we do not need to be taught how to play because it’s something we’re hardwired to do. Play should come naturally to us. As adults, we’ve been shuffled through our factory-style compulsory schooling and come out the other side forgetting what play was like as a child and some of us need help getting back there. Before we get into all the benefits play has to offer our health and our work, let’s get back to where it all began: the playful mind of a child.


Rediscovering Play

Play provides the emotional spark which activates our attention, problem solving and behavior response systems so we gain the skills necessary for cooperation, co-creativity, altruism and understanding.

As a child, I could lose myself for hours roleplaying and taking on new identities. I built huge structures out of cardboard in the basement of my childhood home. When I was older, I went into the woods and hammered bent nails into trees, and called the uneven 2x4’s a clubhouse. In my free time, I was quite the inventor, and drew designs no matter how crooked the lines were. I also played sports and invented games with my pack of neighborhood friends when the traditional ones had too many rules—or needed a few more. At sleepovers, we made up stories about spirits and ghosts, and ancient creatures who lived in the forest on the edge of the neighborhood. Since they only came out after dark, we dared one another to walk through the woods after the clock struck midnight.

What made play so easy was the lack of judgment—especially from ourselves. Not many of us had been told that some things are impossible. If anyone told us that there were things that were impossible, we would have said that an adult hadn’t asked a smart kid to discover a solution yet. Over time, the small voice in the back of our heads that dared us to run through the woods at night without a flashlight changed its tone. It started saying things like: “You can’t do that. You’re not good enough. It’s not scientifically possible. That’s stupid. That will never work. If it’s such a good idea, someone else would have already done it.” Instead of fearing our imagination, we started fearing reality. Instead of focusing on what was possible, we started thinking about all the reasons why something was impossible. The voice of adventure became the voice of caution.

If you are having a hard time rediscovering your old childhood joy for play, try giving yourself “play breaks” during the day. You can start small with doodling in a notebook or by placing an assorted box of LEGO® bricks in a disorganized pile on your desk. For social play, join a community ultimate frisbee team or ask friends to play a pickup game of basketball. During your lunch break, eat outside and toss rocks in a pond. These small steps will help you remember what it was like to be in that child-like mindset again. Little by little, it will come back.

If you put up a mental barrier against play in hopes of being more productive, it might be working against you. What researchers are finding is play, especially when learning a new hobby or when coupled with movement, has been shown to decrease depression, induce positive mood states, and improve overall quality of life. Play is also associated with alleviating the negative impact of age on the body and the mind. Finally, those who play are more productive, have a better eye for detail, and are less stressed.


Preparing Your Mind for Play

A lack of play should be treated like malnutrition: it’s a health risk to your body and mind.

Sometimes, I have a hard time relaxing and getting into a playful mindset because I am always overthinking everything. I’m so good at thinking too much about something, I don’t even know I’m doing it. I’ll get distracted with a fleeting thought for minutes before I realize that I’m off task. Sometimes, one of those thoughts leaves a mark that lasts longer than a minute or two and it makes me angry, worried, or sad. When this happens, I use the Shelf Metaphor to get back to work, let myself play for a while, or engage in playful work.

Here’s how it works. In your imagination, create your very own shelf. Feel free to make it as simple or elaborate as you’d like. My shelf looks like the one in Indian in the Cupboard, but that’s just me. When designing your imaginary shelf, build it so it can be moved out of your direct line of sight. Mine is just above my head and out of my way when I need to work (this is important).

Next, imagine what your distraction looks like. In the past, I have put the following distractions on my shelf: unrelated side projects (an image of me sitting at my laptop typing), a relationship (the person in miniature form), family health issues (usually a body part—a lung, kidney, heart, or hips), and waiting for news about something or someone (fireflies in a mason jar). What I do next is take the image of the distraction, reach above my head, and put the distraction on the shelf where it is out of the way but close enough, so I know I didn’t abandon the thought (it feels good knowing it’s close, but it’s out of sight so I can still do my work). Whenever I feel the urge to think about my distraction, I tell myself that it is right there on the shelf and I can take it down and think about it later. I tell myself that right now, for the next hour, it’s going to stay on the shelf. If I can’t last an hour without thinking about it, I’ll try for 20 minutes. And if 20 minutes is too challenging, I try five. When the time is up, I let myself think about my distraction, but only for a few minutes. When time is up, back on the shelf it goes.

When I put my distraction on the shelf, I know I am not abandoning it—I am setting it down, so I can pick up the rest of my life and move it forward, even if it only happens five minutes at a time. 


Work as Play

Don’t make a distinction between work and play. Regard everything that you’re doing as play, and don’t imagine for one minute that you’ve got to be serious.

I’m a freshwater Midwesterner. No matter where I go, my friendly roots have followed me as I set up camp in new cities across the country. I grew up talking to service workers at the gas station, making small talk with the grocery clerks, asking baristas at the local coffee shop what books they were reading. I usually start with an open-ended, “Hiya, how’s it go-in?”

In the last few years, I’ve picked up on a more somber and disengaged attitude. People may have always been this way, and I am now just picking up on it? Regardless, what I do know is that it’s not only in the one state, it’s all over. When I ask people how their day is going, most of them respond with: “Well, I’m at work…” or “It will be a lot better in x hours” (when their shift is over).

Dr. Stuart Brown, a pioneer in research on play said: “The opposite of play is not work—it is depression.” What we call “work” encompasses whatever we do between the time we get up in the morning and before we fall asleep, and how we do that work defines who we are. If your job is the worst eight hours of your day, you are going to feel more drained of energy after your shift than someone who has worked the same amount of time at a job where they are able to play. If you don’t enjoy your work, start thinking about a job where you can apply skills and knowledge that will allow you to be more playful. If you can’t find new work or need to stick this job out a little longer, try making your work more playful. The only way I was able to survive a few jobs in the past was to think of it all as a game. I thought only about what was right in front of me, one customer at a time, one project at a time. This idea comes from Alan Watts. In a lecture, he describes the chore of washing dishes. Instead of thinking of a towering stack of dirty plates and bowls waiting to be washed, one should only think of the dish they are currently washing. And then, the whole act of taking a dish from the stack, wiping it down, rinsing, and moving onto the next becomes a kind of dance. Instead of it being a chore, it turns into something playful.

As we get older, play becomes something taboo: a time-wasting activity that takes us away from real work. This kind of thinking couldn’t be more wrong. Steven Johnson, author of Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, writes that innovation hasn’t only followed money, war, or sex. According to Johnson, innovation is based in playfulness. Johnson writes: “You will find the future wherever people are having the most fun.” Some companies have caught onto this idea because there is a direct correlation to increased productivity. Studies have found that employees who work for companies that support healthy habits like play are eight times more dedicated and more than three times more creative. This means that if you want to be more productive, you also have to be more playful.


Game of Life

Play is the highest form of research.

In the summer of 2009, game designer and researcher, Jane McGonigal, suffered a concussion that didn’t heal properly. A month into her recovery, she still couldn’t read or write for more than a few minutes at a time. She had constant headaches, nausea, and vertigo, and had a hard time remembering things. Most days she was too sick to get out of bed. Jane felt anxious and depressed, and experienced suicidal thoughts, a side effect of traumatic brain injuries. To reduce the symptoms, her doctor told her all the things she should avoid doing: reading, writing, running, playing video games, working, using email, and consuming alcohol and caffeine. Jane jokingly responded: “In other words, [I have] no reason to live.”

McGonigal was the first person in the world to earn a Ph.D. studying the psychological strengths of gamers and how those strengths translate to real-world problem solving. When she was injured in 2009, she had nearly a decade of game research under her belt, and out of this grew an idea.

There isn’t any real treatment for post-concussion syndrome. You can only rest and wait, with recovery taking sometimes over a year. One day she hit a breaking point and told herself, “I am either going to kill myself, or I’m going to turn this into a game.” Building on gaming principles she learned from her research, McGonigal created a real-life recovery game called “Jane the Concussion Slayer” where she took on a hero’s identity and battled anything that triggered her symptoms. She named these “the bad guys” and together with her allies (friends and family members) they battled the bad guys and collected powerups: anything that would make her day more enjoyable or speed up her recovery. Within a couple of days of playing her real-life game, Jane noticed her depression loosening its grip. It was a lot of work, and by no means a miracle cure, but Jane felt stronger and in more control of her life.

McGonigal made a full recovery and has shared her game with millions of people under a new name: SuperBetter. In her own words, she writes:

I knew from my years of research at the University of California at Berkeley that when we play a game, we tackle tough challenges with more creativity, more determination, and more optimism. We’re also more likely to reach out to others for help.

In 2015, McGonigal published a book about her experience under the same title as her game: SuperBetter. Both the book and app were released in the same year and are based on five years of research. This research included a randomized, controlled study with the University of Pennsylvania and a clinical trial at the College of Medicine at Ohio State University and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health. 

Play and gamification reframe our chaotic world into one we are more familiar with: a video game world with patterns, rules, hacks, and secret identities. When we see the world as a game, our challenges become quests that build experience points and lead to overcoming a larger goal—what Jane and SuperBetter call an Epic Win. Our friends become our allies, and together we are stronger. Our lives are more manageable and more fun as we become the hero of our lives and live more playfully.


To play SuperBetter, visit or visit your mobile app store for a free download.


Play as a Creative Escape

Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.

What you do outside of the office influences your creativity and productivity in the office. When you play, it’s an escape into a less serious world where you are free to explore without having the stress of a deadline. Here are some things you can do to remain playful at home:

Read more science fiction & fantasy books. Reading fiction of any kind can be a healthy escape. You are transported to another world where your imagination leads the way. Have you ever watched a movie of a book you read? It was terrible, right? Because nothing can compare with the movie you made in your mind as you read.

Specifically, I’m suggesting sci-fi and fantasy because those genres push your imagination to create images of things that don’t exist (yet) in our world. In these books, characters are not bound to the same rules and laws we are. They can move through different worldly dimensions and use magic. It pushes us, the reader, to question our own world, and to believe that anything is possible.

In 2007, the author Neil Gaiman visited China for the country’s first-ever state-sponsored science fiction convention. At the event, he began talking to a party official about why they decided to put on the event. Up until this year, the government had disapproved of science fiction, and Gaiman asked why there was such a big change—not only to allow the convention but to sponsor it? The official responded by saying that China manufactures many wonderful things, but they don’t come up with any of the ideas. On a government tour of America, officials spoke to employees at Microsoft, Google, and Apple, and asked a lot of questions. What they found was, all the people they interviewed read science fiction when they were teenagers. That’s when China decided that maybe science fiction and fantasy are good things after all.

Thrift store game night. One of my friend groups meets one night a week to play board games. This isn’t poker or Magic the Gathering, though I do have friends who meet regularly for those games. My thrift store game night friends meet-up and play the games they grew up with like Pictionary, Cranium, Scattergories, Charades, and Bananagrams (usually purchased at a thrift store). These are short games that involve bursts of creativity and sometimes moving out of your comfort zone to act a little goofy. Having a weekly game night is a good outlet to blow off some steam and be a kid again, especially in the middle of the week when it’s easy to feel like a cog in the machine.

Trade night. One of my other friend groups meets once a month to learn something new. They spend Saturday afternoon learning how to do something they have never done before, like learning how to knit, throw clay, or perform a new dance step.

It all started when I was living in Seattle and realized that there were things I’ve always wanted to do, but I had no reason to go out of my way and learn them on my own. I could very easily live the rest of my life not knowing if I liked ballroom dancing or making tiramisu. Besides, who knows, maybe I have a secret knack for something I never knew about?

How it works is someone in the group will say something like “I’ve always wanted to ice skate,” so the next month we will all meet at an ice rink. Usually, there is one person in the group who has done the activity before, and they have the opportunity to teach the rest of the group. What I’ve learned is, sometimes you love it, sometimes you hate it, but it’s better to try it and hate it than not know what you’re missing.

Here are some ideas to get you and your friends started:

  • Karaoke
  • Dancing
  • Squash (game)
  • Making a short movie
  • Woodworking
  • Archery
  • Sewing
  • Crocheting
  • Beekeeping
  • Cooking


How Play Fits into the Dock Model

Do not take life too seriously. You will never get out of it alive.

Within the serious rules of life, play encourages you to test the limits and reframe what is possible. Play lets you experiment with your skills and challenges you to grow them by going on quests and collecting power-ups. You can gain experience points, conquer new territories, and fight the bad guys. When you play, you get to come up with your own life strategy and become the superhero you have always wanted to be. 

Unlike the Health and Practice Pillars, Play is the first pillar that is not connected to the shore. Play is facing open water, symbolizing a full range of opportunities. Once you are healthy enough to use all of your faculties to their fullest (Health, Pillar I) and have a solid foundation to connect to (Practice, Pillar II), you are ready to explore new territory. In Play, you experiment with your skills, break rules (and know why you are breaking the rules), and extend your dock, opening it up to an ocean of possibilities.


GOAL FOR TODAY: Find one thing you can start doing today that will make your life more playful. If your job is a drain, what can you do to turn it into a game? This weekend, is there something new you can explore with your friends? Or, do you have time during the week to host a thrift store game night?

Notes & Refrences



Knutson, K. L., Van Cauter, E., Rathouz, P. J., DeLeire, T., & Lauderdale, D. S. (2010). Trends in the Prevalence of Short Sleepers in the USA: 1975–2006. Sleep, 33(1), 37–45.

Winter, W. C. (2017). The sleep solution: why your sleep is broken and how to fix it. New York: New American Library, p.33.

Full-time workers working longer hours

Saad, L. (2014, August 29). The “40-Hour” Workweek Is Actually Longer -- by Seven Hours. Retrieved August 26, 2017, from

Organizations like the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ( take into account short-time workers and part-time workers, which skew the results for full-time workers. The Gallup poll only takes into consideration full-time workers. 

Put it on the shelf

Inspired by conversations with Dr. Sue Dilsworth, owner of Heart’s Journey Wellness Center:

Play (general)

Bherer, L., Erickson, K. I., & Liu-Ambrose, T. (2013). A Review of the Effects of Physical Activity and Exercise on Cognitive and Brain Functions in Older Adults. Journal of Aging Research, 2013, 657508.

Brown, S. (2008). Play is more than just fun. Retrieved August 26, 2017, from

Brown, S. L., & Vaughan, C. C. (2010). Play: how it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. New York: Avery.

Coleman, A. (2016, February 11). Is Google’s model of the creative workplace the future of the office? Retrieved September 01, 2017, from

Creative Mornings. (2013, October 13). Shaun Huberts: Why are children better at play than adults? Retrieved August 26, 2017, from

Delaney, P. (2009, April). Play’s the Thing - Study Shows “Free Play” Is Highly Important to Human Social Development boston college researcher: modern focus on competition, drive to win may have contributed to economic woes. Retrieved August 26, 2017, from

Gaiman, N., & McKean, D. (2012). Coraline. New York: Harper.

      Note: Quote from G.K. Chesterton.

Gaiman, N. (2016). The view from the cheap seats: a collection of introductions, essays, and assorted writings. New York, NY: William Morrow. P.41

Gaiman, N. (2011, September 02). Week three: Neil Gaiman on writing American Gods. Retrieved August 13, 2017, from

Hallowell, E. M. (2011). Shine: using brain science to get the best from your people. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Hannaford, C. (2005). Smart moves why learning is not all in your head. Salt Lake City, UT: Great River Books.

Johnson, S. (2016). Wonderland: how play made the modern world. New York: Riverhead Books.

McGonigal, J. (2016). Super Better: the power of living gamefully. NY, NY: Penguin Books.

Pink, D. H. (2012). Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead Books. p 1-4.

Robinson, L., Smith, M., Segal, J., & Shubin, J. (2017, April). The Benefits of Play for Adults. Retrieved August 26, 2017, from

The Science. (n.d.). Retrieved August 26, 2017, from

Seinfeld, S., Figueroa, H., Ortiz-Gil, J., & Sanchez-Vives, M. V. (2013). Effects of music learning and piano practice on cognitive function, mood and quality of life in older adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 810.

Swafford, J. (2009, February 03). When music critics attack. Retrieved October 06, 2017, from

Voosen, P. (2015, November 08). Bringing Up Genius. Retrieved November 13, 2015, from

See also:

Watts, Alan:

Text (from transcript) cited below:

The art of washing dishes is that you only have to wash one at a time. If you’re doing it day after day, you have in your mind’s eye an enormous stack of filthy dishes that you have washed up in years past, and an enormous stack of filthy dishes which you will wash up in years future. But if you bring in your mind to the state of reality which just is - as I have pointed out to you - only Now. This is where we are. There is only Now. You only have to wash one dish! It’s the only dish you ever have to wash, this one! You ignore all the rest, because in reality there is no past, and there is no future, there is only this one!

Yenigun, S. (2014, August 06). Play Doesn’t End With Childhood: Why Adults Need Recess Too. Retrieved August 26, 2017, from

Text copyright © 2017 by Andrew J. Wilt 


Andrew J. Wilt is the author of Age of Agility, a book that addresses the skill gap between school and work. He can be reached at and on Twitter @andrewjwilt

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