I’m on the move constantly. I exercise about six days a week, walk everywhere (thank you, New York City), and dance the night away until, well, let’s just say the early hours of the morning. But there’s not a lot of time for play. That feeling of running around the playground, tripping and falling on wood chips, or slipping on wet grass just doesn’t exist in my current life. (And, yes, I did get injured a lot as a child.) But, recently, I rediscovered the feeling of carefree movement in a surprising place: the pickleball court.
Like many Americans, I quickly got into the pickleball craze after being taught by a family member last summer. Fortunately, my roommates were on board with my new obsession. We purchased a moveable net from Amazon that we could set up on a nearby lined court. Within just a few minutes of hitting around, we were all hooked. A free thing to do in New York City that wasn’t our typical park hang? Yes, please. But I also became entranced with the game for an unexpected reason: it made me feel like a kid again.
My movement throughout the rest of the week is structured. As much as I would love to embody the free-spirited running mentality of Phoebe from “Friends,” I tend to lean more on the side of Rachel, just getting in my standard jog. My workout classes follow the same trajectory. But pickleball is different. When I’m running around the court, joking with my roommates, or making a goofy impression of my competitor’s last shot, it’s just plain fun.
The Benefits of Free Play
When I originally learned of the concept of “free play,” I assumed it required a completely unstructured activity. That’s not necessarily the case. “I define play as any joyful act where you forget about time and are fully immersed at the moment and willing to let go of the results,” says Jeff Harry, a consultant on positive play.
If you’re engaged in a deeply competitive game where you are only focused on winning versus enjoying the match, that’s not really considered play, Harry explains. Play requires playing for the sake of having fun, instead of winning, performing, or impressing others. Unlike other activities or sports I do, this is what sets pickleball apart. I’m not that good. I head out on the court not with the aim of winning a point, but rather to spend time moving outside and socializing.
The benefits of engaging in free play as an adult go beyond just having fun. A 2013 study published in Leisure Sciences found that college students who engaged in play reported lower levels of stress than those who didn’t. Additionally, a 2022 study published in Frontiers in Psychology noted that play strengthened emotional intelligence and emotional traits in participants, helping them cultivate resilience.
It’s something I’ve noticed anecdotally in my own experience on and off the court. After a few hours of playing, I’m calmer, centered, and generally happier.
How You Can Engage in Play
You don’t have to be pickleball-obsessed to engage in play. It can be any activity that brings you joy. And discovering what that pastime is for you is simpler than you may think. “Get bored,” recommends Harry. The next time you’re not heading to a scheduled activity, spend a few minutes aways from your screens and just sit with yourself. Connect with your inner child—and imagine what would actually be fun for you in that moment.
Experiment with what different types of play may look like for you, whether that’s acting on an impulse to free dance or saying yes to a friend’s invitation to a concert in the park. Your type of play won’t look the same as others—and that’s OK. It has to be personal to you.
That goes for setting time limits, too.“Only the person playing will know how many hours or days one should spend per week,” Harry says. If you have trouble letting go of time-bound limits, remind yourself that clocking in and out of an activity can be a symptom of perfectionism. Play isn’t something that can be structured in the same way.
Even if you’re not engaging in your activity of choice, you can still maintain an aura of play throughout your days. “In my case, I see life through the lens of play, so I play almost all the time,” Harry says. “Even if it is challenging and not fun, I still can be at play, embracing a play-oriented mindset built on curiosity, awe, and a sense of wonder.”
It’s impossible for me to be out on the court every day. But I try to keep Harry’s words in mind as I sit at my desk during the week. Bringing the aura of play to my work sometimes manifests in getting particularly excited around a colleague’s new story or having a lighthearted brainstorming session. It’s not pickleball—but it’s definitely another type of playfulness.
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