Hypotheticals in Play


in Personal Growth

In law school, my professors were fond of handing out elaborate hypotheticals designed to test our powers of observation and analysis.

Today, I’m going to give you a hypothetical to get you thinking about a facet of our lives that we often overlook or push to the back-burner.

Intrigued? I hope so. At the end, there will be a quiz. Be prepared to explain your response (as they say in every good exam!).

The Hypothetical

You are at work, sitting at your desk, dutifully pouring over the first quarter’s financial projections. You’ve finished your fourth cup of coffee and are considering whether that candy bar in the vending machine will suffice for lunch or whether you need to head across the street for a pre-packaged sandwich when the phone rings.

“Uh oh” you think as you glance at the display screen – “she” only calls when something has gone completely off the rails.

It’s your boss.

With no small amount of trepidation, you answer the call. Prepared for the worst, you paste a smile on your face, extend a cheery greeting, and ask how you can help.

What you hear next practically knocks you off your chair.

Instead of asking you to respond to the latest disaster, your boss tells you that she has decided to give you the afternoon off, with pay. It’s her way of thanking you for all of your hard work.

However, she has one condition:  you must spend the afternoon playing and be prepared to tell her what you did when you return to work the next morning.

You readily agree and get off the phone before she can change her mind. Grabbing your keys, you head out to the parking lot and get into your car.

Sitting behind the steering wheel poised to put pedal-to-the-metal, it hits you:  you have absolutely no idea what she means by “playing.”

You take a moment to consider your options.

You could:  a) take a nap; b) head over to the mall to see if something strikes your fancy; or, c) clean out the garage – something you’ve been meaning to do for the last six months.

You aren’t sure if any of these options will satisfy your boss. The euphoria that filled you moments ago starts to evaporate and panic makes itself known.

The Issue

The issue facing our hypothetical employee is fairly simple – namely, what is play?

For humans, play is a refuge from ordinary life, a sanctuary of the mind, where one is exempt from life’s customs, methods, and decrees. Play always has a sacred place – some version of a playground in which it happens. The hallowed ground is usually outlined, so that it’s clearly set off from the rest of reality. This place may be a classroom, a sports stadium, a stage, a court-room, a coral reef, a workbench in a garage, a church or a temple, a field where people clasp hands in a circle under the new moon. Play has a time limit, which may be an intense but fleeting moment, the flexible innings of a baseball game or the exact span of a psychotherapy session. Sometimes the time limit is prearranged; at other times it’s only recognizable in retrospect. The world of play favors exuberance, license, abandon. Shenanigans are allowed, strategies can be tried, selves can be revised. In the self-enclosed world of play, there is no hunger. It is its own goal, which it reaches in a richly satisfying way. Play has its own etiquette, rituals and ceremonies, its own absolute rules. ~ Diane Ackerman, Deep Play

So, I ask you, do any of the options selected by the hypothetical employee qualify as play?

The importance of this question cannot be underestimated – not only for purposes of this hypothetical, but for our own lives, as well. Many of us, I fear, would find ourselves in the same situation as our hypothetical employee if we were unexpectedly granted a moment, an hour, an afternoon, or day that was completely our own for the sole purposes of playing.

We wouldn’t know what play was. We wouldn’t know what – exactly – was expected of us.

Which is both sad and funny at the same time.

We used to know the answer quite clearly back in the days when we could entertain ourselves with anything, be it breadcrumbs or cardboard boxes. In an instant, we could slip away from the ordinary, manufacture the extraordinary, and enter a state of divine concentration where the only goal was to have fun.

As we grew older, play was pushed out of us. We were encouraged to sit up straight, stop goofing around, and get to work.

Gradually, we stopped playing.

We grew up and, worse yet, we forgot what play was or how to do it.

The Rules of Play

So, let’s break down the elements of play as described by Ackerman:

  • A refuge from ordinary life
  • A sacred place
  • A time limit
  • Favoring exuberance, license, and abandon
  • With the play itself being the end goal
  • Done according to its own rules

Using this framework, can you define what constitutes play? For our hypothetical employee? For you?

The Quiz

Will our hypothetical employee be able to fulfill the boss’s request?

If you had one minute to list everything you do that counts as play, what would be on the list?

Would you know what to do if someone told you to go out and play?? If not, why not?

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Sandi Amorim February 6, 2012 at

Whoa…this just reached out and jolted me awake! I used to pride myself on my ability to play (one of my core values, don’t ya know!) but realize in reading this that it’s fallen dangerously by the wayside in the busyness of life. Lots to do, gotta get stuff done, no time to play – but at what cost?

Dates with myself, mid-day movies, a day off for no reason, watching dogs frolic at the dog beach, strolling down my favourite streets just because I can – I promise to bring you all back! Good thing I have two weeks off in Maui to ponder this further ;-)


Andrea Olson February 6, 2012 at

OK, keep rubbing it in about the Maui trip. :) But you are so right, Sandi, it is shocking to realize that play has fallen by the wayside – a victim of all that we seemingly “must” do. I’m glad you still remember what it means to you!


Kate February 6, 2012 at

This is one of those issues that has been lurking at the back of my mind for a while. At the moment I work on my blog and hobby business for ‘fun’ but I guess it can’t really be classed as play as there is an end goal in mind. I hate to admit it but there isn’t a lot of play going on right now so thank you for this enlightening post and reminder to let my hair down and just play every once in a while : )
Kate recently posted..Something for the weekend…


Rita@thissortaoldlife.com February 6, 2012 at

Hi Kate–
I blog for “fun” too–which means I’m doing it because I like it and because it’s helping me learn things I want to learn. Even though I have goals for it, I still think it counts as play. I don’t know that goals and play are mutually exclusive. I think if you were doing it only to achieve those goals, that’s when it would slip out of play and into work.
Rita@thissortaoldlife.com recently posted..Bathroom Remodel Update


Andrea Olson February 6, 2012 at

You are welcome, Kate! If you can lose yourself in your writing, even for a moment, and it brings you joy, then I’m pretty sure your blog would qualify as play. My writing feels like play to me.


Rita@thissortaoldlife.com February 6, 2012 at

I will never forget this moment: At a back-to-school staff development meeting, I was being interviewed by a fellow teacher in front of our colleagues. The question: What do you do for fun? My answer: Silence. I could not think of one single thing to say. There was awkward laughter in response to my awkward silence.

It was my first clue that my life had gone seriously off-track without me knowing it.

I do not think a nap counts as play, but shopping and garage-organizing can be–if done in the right spirit, for the right reasons.

Finally, is that boss looking to hire any new employees? :-)
Rita@thissortaoldlife.com recently posted..The pause that refreshes


Andrea Olson February 6, 2012 at

Thanks, Rita – I love your perspective, as always. I’ve had those moments myself and it is a great reminder to devote some time to “self.”


Sue Mitchell February 6, 2012 at

I want to marry this post. :)

I’d nix the nap, but I can see ways to play while shopping and cleaning the garage. With the shopping, if you’re not looking for anything in particular but just seeing what you discover, I’d call that play. Same thing with the garage. If you’re not focused on creating a clean garage but instead go in saying, “Let’s see what I find in here,” then it could be quite fun and qualify as play.

What do I do for play? I’m fortunate to have an 8-year-old, so play is mandatory. A few playful things I’ve done recently: Bag Wars (a game my son invented using grocery bags), Find the Phone (a game I invented using the page button on our cordless phone), skipping rocks across a frozen pond and listening to the UFO-like sounds it makes, and making abstract designs with gel pens.

That said, I spend WAY too much time working. I try to make work fun, but I am still trying to “get something done,” which to me is what most distinguishes play from work. I think play is doing things just to see what happens, whereas with work, you know what you want to have happen and you make it so.
Sue Mitchell recently posted..When Was the Last Time You Danced in the Rain?


Andrea Olson February 6, 2012 at

Sue – you brought a smile to my face! I love the games you’ve played with your 8-year-old. I have a 5-year-old so I am constantly in the throes of one creative activity or another. It reminds me that play is important and I’m grateful for the lesson every day. For me, I know that I am playing when I forget everything else. I become so absorbed in what I’m doing (and having fun at it) that everything else disappears for a bit.


Beth Grant February 8, 2012 at

Andrea — this is a great question. About a month ago I realized I was having far too little fun. It’s sad, isn’t it, that I had to make a point of having fun? I’m not talking about a block of time that’s designated as play time, so much as, “Why am I so serious all the time?” And “Wait, didn’t I used to be FUN to be around?”

I noticed since then that I have had much more laughter in my life. Belly laughter!

As for play, I hope that the employee at least went to the mall. I suspect most of us when given the opportunity to play, use it to exercise self-care (like getting our nails done on a workday afternoon), “treat” ourselves, get a massage or “fill ourselves back up.”

I think the concept of play is different than having fun or filling ourselves up, though. I think there is an element of spontaneity involved, of whimsy. You get to do it for the sake of doing it and not because you think it will make you feel a certain way. That is where you open the door to laughter and creativity and FUN. I think, for me, the most essential element of play is release a clear plan and do something enjoyable … fully … and see where it leads.


Andrea Olson February 8, 2012 at

Hi Beth – So great to see you here! I adore your point about giving ourselves “treats” instead of playing. Too true. The treats are lovely and, for the most part, easy to accomplish but they aren’t really a substitute for play. When we play, we fall into being – into fun and flow. What could be better than that?


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