Mindful Play Time: Why Adult Humans Are Really Giant Toddlers


Last month, we decided to bring back the old tradition of apple bobbing. Unsanitary? Very much so. Also a great play time opportunity.

While researching for my play workshop, I came across an interesting concept called neoteny.  According to the Scientific American article “Being More Infantile Might Have Led to Bigger Brains,” neoteny is “the retention of juvenile features.”  For example, humans have big eyes, flatter faces and far less body hair than a mature chimpanzee, our closest ancestor.  Basically, we have many of the features of a baby monkey.  We have a slower maturation process than chimps, too.

Some theorists believe that  neoteny is what has allowed humans to thrive.  Despite our physical weaknesses compared to many other species, we have certain youthful characteristics far into maturity that are very advantageous to the species (Gordon, 2014, p. 250).

For example, we play.  According to Gwen Gordon‘s article “Well Played: The Origins and Future of Playfulness” in the American Journal of Play, “Humans are a uniquely playful species, and our playfulness has provided enormous evolutionary advantages at the species level, making us more adaptable, flexible, and inventive” (Gordon, 2014, p.250).  Conversely, when one gives up play or no longer has the urge to play (for whatever reason) than a process called “psychosclerosis,” or “hardening of the psyche” can occur (Gordon, 2014, p.251).

Basically, play allows us to continue to shape and change our brains because it activates and changes neural pathways in the brain (Gordon, 2014, p.251).

I have already heralded the benefits of play for adults on other occasions, and so I won’t go into more of that here, but what I do want to do is talk a little bit about how to discover more of your own authentic ways to play.


Do they look alike? Jamey makes a self-portrait out of marshmallow and candy.

Stuart Brown, a psychologist and founder of The National Institute for Play, suggests something he calls a “play history.”  Basically this is an archeological dig into our past and present selves to see what play is most intuitive and authentic to our own experiences. This might include pondering or writing the answers to questions such as:

  • What type of play did you enjoy as a child?
    • Saturate yourself in vivid memory of youthful play.  What do you remember seeing, smelling, hearing, feeling?
  • What type of play did you enjoy in your teenage years?
    • Saturate yourself in vivid memory of teenage play.  What do you remember seeing, smelling, hearing, feeling?
  • Where do you find time in your life for play now?  Are there times you get lost in an activity and lose track of time?  Are there times you remember experiencing pleasure because of this sense of timelessness?  Does this play experience have similarities or differences to other times in your life
    • Saturate yourself in vivid memory of play in your adult life.  What do you remember seeing, smelling, hearing, feeling?

After you have asked yourself these questions, you might want to consider: are there ways that you can experience the joys of play from other times of your life today?  What might that look like?  You might find that there are things you have left behind in your play history that you could bring back in some way.

For example, for me, I loved dancing as a teenager and in college.  However, I no longer feel comfortable wading the crowds of much younger humans bumping and grinding to nano bites of songs smooshed together as some sort of DJ Frankenstein compilation (but I digress).

So, how can I bring dancing back into my life now?  Well, the last couple of days, I held a morning dance party with my five-year old to Macklemore’s song “Downtown.” (Be prepared, there is some profanity in the video; A little judgement on my parental decisions here is warranted.)

Another recently uncovered play inclination is my love of being in the natural world.  As a child, my favorite play memories are of wandering out in a creek bed with a childhood friend looking for crawdads and gathering materials for our playhouse.  As an adult in college, I collected rocks with my roommate while hiking to decorate our front porch.

In adulthood my outdoor play looks like this: A few months ago, I wrote a post where I documented my fascination with the fungus in the woods by our tent while camping.  I spent hours by myself finding a rainbow variety of mushrooms and capturing the perfect lighting in an image before posting them on the blog.

These are a few examples of how play has wound its way through my life in my own unique and authentic ways.  The key to play is this: it needs to engage your own inner direction and longings.


What’s your play history?  Do you still find these activities manifesting in your adult life?  If not, can you find a place for them?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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