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Play (Yes, Play) to Your Strengths

Learning to goof off, have fun, and just be isn’t just a luxury, it’s a key ingredient in your life—and women need it most of all, a new book finds.

Brigid Schulte_(c)Peter C. Heimberg
photo by Peter C. Heimberg

By Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time

A seminal work of leisure research by Eileen Green is titled Women’s Leisure, What Leisure?

In her study of women’s free time in England, in the 1980s, Green found that women identified themselves as wives and mothers first—and felt guilty about taking time for or spending money on themselves. When the researchers asked the husbands about their wives’ downtime, “[they] said it was all right once in a while, but if she did it very often, they would feel there was something wrong with the marriage,” Green told me.

Similarly, when North Carolina State University leisure scholar Karla Henderson tried to interview rural farm women about their leisure, they all laughed at her. Whatever “free” time they had, they filled with enjoyable but productive quilting bees, knitting circles, canning, gardening, and talk with friends as they bustled about the kitchen.

Henderson came to think of this as “invisible” leisure—and truly, it is the only kind of acceptable leisure time most women have ever known. Yet having time to relax, cavort, playfully explore novel experiences—like soaring on a trapeze, or writing a book, even—is crucial to who we are, to who we want to be.

Having fun builds your brainpower

Play sculpts the brain, says Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist and the founder of the National Institute for Play. In horsing around, pretending, telling stories, moving our bodies, creating, making jokes, tinkering, being curious, competing in sports and daydreaming, the brain creates rich neural connections that fire together in new ways. As children, play is how we begin to understand ourselves and the way the world works. As adults, play is what keeps our brains flexible.

So why is play so hard for women?

Brown has made a career of treating people suffering from the effects of what he calls play deprivation, which, he said, tends to set in just as humans hit adolescence. Men tend to maintain at least a semblance of play through sports, he said, either actively playing or watching it. Women tend to lose it entirely.

“Most all of us have a play nature and it’s within our capacity to get it back,” he told me, “But if your time is constantly fragmented and you’re revving in high gear with the demands of the day, it’s very, very tough.”

That fragmented, revved-up feeling was one I knew all too well. My time felt like confetti, scattered in small bits throughout my life. How does a busy working woman find the wherewithal to piece it all together to enjoy a true experience of freedom and flow, that engrossing and timeless state that some call peak human experience?

Rediscover what you’ve always loved to do

Roger Mannell, a psychologist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, has found that when people have a sense of choiceand controlover what they do with their free time, they are more likely to get into that flow. “Part of the problem with leisure is that people aren’t quite sure what they really want,” Mannell said. “And they never slow down long enough to figure it out.”

Brown introduced me to Barbara Brannen, a successful executive in Denver with two kids and a busy life who, over time, found herself so unsatisfied and stressed-out from working all the time that she lost the use of her left arm.

“A whole bunch of things in my life fell apart, and I decided it was because I’d stopped playing,” she told me. She came to believe that play is a gift, “a gift that women in particular get the message that they should give up—and they need to find it again.”

Brannen became a “play coach,” running a business called Playmore, helping people remember what, as a child, made them feel so happy they couldn’t wait to do it—and once they started, never wanted to stop. To help jog people’s moribund and often embarrassed memories, she tells people to start writing what she calls a “playlist.”

What’s your fun spot?

When Brannen did that herself, she discovered she did have time for leisure—it just never seemed to be her kind of leisure. She’d fallen into doing all the things that her kids wanted or that her husband liked. She often enjoyed herself, “but I wanted to feel my heart sing,” she said.

She began injecting playfulness throughout her day, blasting music when it was time to clean out the closet or wearing head boppers at work. Over time, she remembered that what she missed most as an adult was being outdoors. She loved to ski, to be out in the woods. She loved making mud pies. And most of all, she loved the water.

She also realized that her husband did not love any of these things, and perhaps that was why it took her so long to remember them. It was a scary realization. She loved her husband. Her challenge became, then, how to find time for her own play while preserving time for the things they loved to do together.

She started small, planting a garden in the backyard and getting her hands dirty. Then she found nearby hiking trails and took her dog or met a friend to walk. Over time, as her arm healed and her children grew up, on a wild hair, she found herself at REI, shopping for a kayak.

Though she had no idea how to paddle, Brannen found three little lakes within 10 minutes of her house, and now she regularly goes out to splash around. Kayaking isn’t her ultimate source of joy. It isn’t the end of her quest. “It is just really, really fun.”


Brigid Schulte is an award-winning journalist for the Washington Post. She was part of a team there that won the Pulitzer Prize. She is also a fellow at the New America Foundation. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia with her husband and two children. She grew up in Oregon and spent summers in Wyoming, where she did not feel overwhelmed.