How to play your way out of a stuck moment

Play kite

As we grow older, the world of horsing around and letting our imaginations run wild slowly fades to sepia tone. We may feel nostalgic for those carefree days, but the demands of the adult world make play a tiny footnote to our schedules. In School of Life 101, we learn that a serious mind is prized over a playful one. That, when in doubt, it’s better to button up and sit still than to let loose. That focus — not free-styling — is what gets us into the flow.

But actually, play is all about flow. It puts our brains and bodies into a joyful place where things just click. And that’s when magic can happen. This playful state of being can have amazing benefits in life and work:

• Play fires the brain, revealing patterns and creating connections that drive creativity, innovation, and problem-solving.

• It’s a social glue that helps us bond, learn about, and better understand each other.

• It helps us grow, emotionally and intellectually, from birth onward.

• It eases stress, helping us live longer and keep our minds sharper.

So that got us wondering: How do we play our way out of a stuck moment? For the answer, we turned to play’s biggest champion, Dr. Stuart Brown.

Dr. Brown is an M.D., psychiatrist, author of the bestselling Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul (our source of the findings about play, above), and founder of the National Institute of Play.  Before addressing three stuck moments, he stepped back to describe what play feels like:

“There’s a mood elevation, a shift in how one feels about oneself, one’s body, one’s future. These are by-products of getting to that true, authentic place. You feel optimistic, engaged, have a sense of perseverance. You’re not preoccupied with yourself. You want to take it to the next level.”

We’re enthralled just thinking about that. And chagrined by his characterization of life without play:

“You become stuck in a rut, rigid in outlook. There’s a smoldering kind of apathy or lack of optimism. You may be effective, you may be making a good living, but the private sense of joyfulness, or intimacy you might have — in laughing with friends, for example — just isn’t there.”

It sounds like a perfect storm of stuckness. Perspective begins to narrow. We feel cornered, down on ourselves. And we start to feel victimized by what the world asks of us.

Argh. When this happens, what do we do, Dr. Brown? “You can’t control the world,” he says, “but there’s always this capacity to bring joy and play into the world. If you will allow it.”

He also observes: “Getting into play is a bit like getting into good physical condition: It takes some focus, and practice to enjoy its payoffs.”

Now, what does he suggest for these three all-too-common stuck moments?

Stuck Moment: My job takes so much out of me that, by the time I get home, there’s just not much energy left for my partner and kids. I want to enjoy spending time with them and be a fun mom and partner, but I’m just too tired.

“Often people feel totally depleted,” Dr. Brown says. “The kids are demanding. Not enough sleep. Have to make dinner. What am I going to do?”

Ask yourself: “What is it that engages you, that allows you to have some mood elevation? The kids may be hungry and tired and fussy, but they are usually engage-able in something that’s fun. Prioritize that as something to mark the end of the day and the family experience. All of a sudden, you get caught up in what constitutes play, and the fatigue falls away.”

He adds: “This is not always an easy exploration.  It takes some emotional digging to match your inner player with your outer life circumstances.”

Just as important as the activity, Dr. Brown says, is your mindset:

“When I was an overworked physician — I had four kids — I would sit in the parking lot before I went home, until I could feel the love and joyfulness of having kids — and then I would go home.”

Stuck Moment: I feel like my job is going nowhere. Management doesn’t seem to know what they want, and I’m left spinning my wheels. I wish I could quit my day job and start my own business doing something I love, but I’m scared that I won’t be able to pay my bills.

“Use your imagination to explore possibilities that might get you out of your day job,” Dr. Brown says. “Get into an imaginative state where you see yourself in a better job. Spend time looking at your own talents: What do I do best? What gives me a personal sense of purpose? Can I combine that need for relevance with my own particular play choices?”

In the meantime, you can make that boring job better.

“Let’s say you’re an assembly line worker, or a cashier, or one of these jobs that are difficult, repetitive, or boring. You’ve got your imagination, and there are people involved. There are all sorts of playful interactions that are possible with other people.”

He advises you to seek out people enjoying their jobs, and learn from them. For example, there are the garbage collectors he encountered in Brazil, who drum on garbage cans and sing in-between pick-ups: “They have found a way to work and play together, despite their hard, dirty jobs.”

Stuck Moment: I know I should diet and exercise for my own good, but it seems like such a chore. Plus, I’ve failed too many times before. Eating a lot and vegging on the couch is my idea of fun — why give it up?

“Is it fun, or is it escapist?” Dr. Brown asks.  “They are different. Escapism does not enhance self-esteem. It provides relief for the moment, but usually has adverse long-term effects on well-being. “

Some activities that we think of as fun (eating, drinking, web-surfing, reality-TV watching) can be harmful when they’re not in balance with our goals or other needs. Play isn’t an excuse to be lazy or not take care of yourself.

“The essence of life is to try to maintain a capacity for a playful spirit — within constraints,” Dr. Brown says. “Get off the couch and pretend you’re conducting a symphony.” You’ll engage your mind and body, even while the TV stays on.

Or we can make exercise into a fun activity, like dancing or playing sports, or by joining a class or a group, like a diet or fitness community. The playfulness of social interaction can benefit you in ways beyond a trim waistline.


But how do we know if our stuck moment calls for a team sport or solo performance? Turns out, our childhood play informs this. Think back to the type of activities that you were most attracted to and brought you the most joy. Dr. Brown calls this your “play personality.” Knowing yours is a great tool to have at the ready. Here are six from Dr. Brown’s book, Play.

As a child: You loved silly nicknames, prank calls, and pratfalls.
When you get stuck: Consider injecting humor to lighten the mood and boost energy.

As a child: You ran toward physical play — sports, dance, swimming, a rousing game of Tag.
When you get stuck: Consider stepping away from the situation to hit the pavement or yoga mat, which will allow you to come back re-energized.

As a child: You loved to uncover discoveries, browse for hours, and always ask “why?”
When you get stuck: Consider turning a stuck situation into a kind of scavenger hunt or other exploratory game.

As a child: You loved to put things together in different ways — and to take them apart.
When you get stuck: Consider pulling everything apart and reassembling in a new way.

As a child: You loved to tell tales in a way that fascinated your audience.
When you get stuck: Consider looking at it from a different character’s point of view.

As a child: You loved classifying butterflies, filling stamp books, polishing your collection of beach pebbles.
When you get stuck: Consider using your discerning eye to find the similarities and differences among like situations or problems.

PRINTABLE TIP CARD #23: 22 playful ways to make every day better

Trained in general and internal medicine, psychiatry and clinical research, Dr. Stuart Brown, M.D. first recognized the importance of play by discovering its absence in the life stories of murderers and felony drunken drivers.  His years of clinical practice and thousands of detailed clinical reviews of homicidal males and mass murderers from one end, to numerous Nobel Laureates at the other, as well as those in-between, affirmed the importance and need for healthy play throughout the human life cycle. He is the founder of the National Institute for Play and, with his partner, Kristen Cozad, is currently developing “play design thinking” methodologies to identify and build upon the innate talents and intrinsic motivators of humans, ages 0 to 99. Discover more at

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