Skip to main content

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us

Everyday Philosophy: Don’t underestimate the importance of playtime

Philosopher NIGEL WARBUTON why we must not forget the fun and games of life when it seems bleak.

A full-size Bugatti Chiron made of Lego. The Danish toy company know the value of play time. Photo: Anton Novoderezhkin/TASS /Getty Images.

Lego sales have surged this year. The Danish toy company is thriving in the pandemic and gave its 18,000 employees an extra three days off to thank them, on top of a bonus.

Presumably many of them will spend at least some of that time playing with their favourite interlocking bricks and mini-figures, perhaps with their children, perhaps on their own.

Lego is a word constructed from the Danish “leg godt” which means “play well”. Who among us hasn’t spent many hours playing well with Lego?

Play of one kind or another is an important part of life, particularly for children. Depriving them of the chance to do so is cruel.

The Victorian philosopher John Stuart Mill, who was both a beneficiary and victim of intensive home-schooling from his father, later came to regret that he was “never a boy, never played cricket”. The relentless hot-housing turned him into an intellectual polymath, and led to a breakdown, the ‘mental crisis’ that Mill describes in his Autobiography (1873).

Surely the absence of play in his life must have had something to do with this. Play is such an important aspect of growing up for any social being, particularly a human being. But it’s important for adults too, although some pretend to be too grown up to admit that and stifle the urge.

Why, though, is it so important?

The psychologist Alison Gopnik, in her book The Gardner and the Carpenter, explains how playful activity allows participants to develop skills, try out a wide range of experiments and possibilities, and so become better prepared for novel situations.

Children who play games together develop physically and socially. But there are other cognitive benefits too. Games of make-believe provide a training in hypothetical thinking, and Gopnik gives empirical evidence that children who often engage in these games are better at exploring counterfactual situations than those who rarely do so.

This is as we might expect. Exercising the creative imagination makes you more imaginative.

But Gopnik makes a further very interesting point. She describes the ‘paradox of play.’ The really significant benefits from playful activity come when children play because it is simply fun, and not because it will produce some other hoped-for beneficial effect. Children playing for fun explore a wide range of possibilities, engage their imaginations, escape the usual limits of their behaviour and thought.

Such play seems to be what philosophers sometimes label an ‘autotelic’ activity, something that is an end in itself, not done for some further outcome. Building a tower, or recreating Raphael’s The School of Athens, using Lego is simply amusing.

Lego has sold billions of construction bricks mainly because playing with it is enjoyable and open-ended, not because it develops eye-hand motor skills or turns children into proto-architects or designers.

But there is, Gopnik points out, a potential long term pay-off too (one that you only get if you don’t set out to achieve it).

We are constructed by evolutionary forces to get great pleasure from seemingly pointless play. Play amuses children and adults alike, it is an enjoyable way to while away some of our hours and is one of the ways we get through life.

But at the same time, when we play just for the sake of it, we develop, in the longer term, our potential to deal with unexpected new situations because through this kind of play we are likely to explore more widely than if we engage in play because we think it will benefit us.

As Gopnik puts it: “The fundamental paradox of play is that in order to be able to reach a variety of new goals in the long run, you have to actively turn away from goal-seeking in the short run.”

Mill made an analogous point about happiness. He came to realise that consciously pursuing happiness was a very good way to make it disappear.

The best way to achieve happiness was to immerse yourself in doing something that you cared deeply about, and preferably, but not necessarily, something that would help others too.

Happiness would come as a by-product. “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so,” he wrote. Similarly, perhaps, ask yourself what the payoff of playing is and you lose many of the benefits.

Enjoy playing. It’s fun. Some good will almost certainly come of it as you equip yourself for an unpredictable future. But if it doesn’t, it’s still fun, and life is short. Play well.

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us

See inside the 9 December: Now That's What We Call Bullshit edition

Landmarks of London and Paris, brought together. But how long before Britain reconnects with France and the rest of the EU? Photo: Getty Images.

Is there a bridge back to the European Union?

With rival negotiators at odds over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron trading insults, it seems that Britain and the EU have never been further apart. But a former diplomat argues that a coming together is inevitable.