Work and play – two sides of the same coin or two different coins altogether?

I was in Sainsbury’s the other day and came across a large display from a popular toy company reminding customers to take the new year’s play pledge and #stayplayful.


I stopped and looked. It made me smile. I stood and reminisced for a little, got a tad jealous of all the kids who would be taking home these boxes of fun and then decided to continue my shopping before someone stopped to ask me if I was alright.

Walking up and down the aisles, that hashtag stayed with me. Something was bugging me. And then it hit me (in the laundry aisle no less). The #stayplayful was assuming I was already playful. Continue to be playful it was saying. In fact, it was saying pledge to continue to be playful.

To continue to be anything we need to currently be that thing. And this got me thinking about play – if I play, when I play, what is play, do adults play?

When I got home from Sainsbury’s (without the laundry detergent I might add), I consulted the trusted dictionary and discovered that play is defined as:

an activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation, especially by children


I then looked at the definition of work

an activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result

I looked at these two definitions side by side and thought – could enjoyment not be that purpose or result?

As we grow, we are exposed to the idea that play is the thing we do when we are not doing everything else. Play is not a state of being, it is something we do, a verb. It is the opposite to all other activity, which grouped together is known as ‘work’. Play is the reward for doing the work.

As schoolchildren, play is something that happens at break time or after homework (and there it is again ‘work’ – something that is a chore rather than something fun). As university students, it is something we should be doing (note the should) after lectures and exams. As adults it is something we do when we are not working.

To quote Theodore Roosevelt ‘When you play, play hard; when you work, don’t play at all’. Work is work and after work we play. When did play become the thing we do when we are not doing something else? Has it always been that way? Could play be a state of mind, a way of being as opposed to something we do?

Peter Gray (PHD) in his essay from 2008 entitled The Value of Play, hypothesised that the traits of play have to do with motivation and mental attitude, not with the overt form of the behaviour. He went on to say ‘Two people might be throwing a ball, or pounding nails, or typing words on a computer, and one might be playing while the other is not. To tell which one is playing, and which one is not, you have to infer from their expressions and the details of their actions something about why they are doing what they are doing and their attitude toward it.’

Eureka! We as humans can choose our attitude and motivations, so does it not follow that we can then choose for work to be play?

Alan Watts, a British-American philosopher, was onto this idea when he said  ‘This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realise it is play’

I am going to choose play (the verb, the noun and the mental attitude – all of it).

After all, we as adults spend the majority of our best waking hours with the people we work with and at the organisation we work for. Why wouldn’t we want to have fun and enjoy it?

If all work and no play make jack a dull boy, but he likes what he does for a job and has fun doing it…well then maybe we should all be like Jack.

Thanks #toycompanyknownforbuildingblocks for reminding me to, never mind STAY, but rather BE playful.