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Play: A Lesson from Our Furry Best Friends

Updated: Feb 21, 2022

A ball. That’s it. Just a ball. Or squeaky toy. Or a stick. It’s so simple.

I live in a 2-story townhome with 2 bedrooms upstairs and the living area and kitchen downstairs. When I tore my ACL in 2017 and recovered from surgery, I slept downstairs on the sofa bed – my dog Pierre, then 17, right beside me – and “lived” in the living area. For the first time in my career, I was able to work from home, and for the first time in our relationship, I was able to witness my dog’s daily routine.

One day at precisely 10am, I saw Pierre hobble up the stairs. The couch where I lay was directly underneath one of the bedrooms, and I heard him skirting around above me – scratching the floor and rolling over, his collar jingling – for about 5 minutes, then silence and stillness. After about 45 minutes, he slowly made his way down the stairs and hopped back onto the bed with me.

Because of my recovering knee, I wasn’t able to follow him up the stairs and discover his secret, but whatever it was, he did it religiously every day around 10am. After 6 weeks of recovery, I was finally strong enough to go up the stairs. I couldn’t wait to see what this daily venture entailed! As I watched him gingerly walk up the stairs, I – gingerly, too – followed him. When I arrived at the top of the stairs, I peeped around the corner and into the bedroom.

The room has French doors that face the east and open out onto a balcony. I noticed that at this time of day – precisely 10 o’clock – the morning sun shone perfectly into the room and onto the floor. And there, right in the middle of the sunny spot, was Pierre with his favorite toy, Mr. Moo Cow. Doing my best to suppress a laugh, I stood at the door and watched him play with his Mr. Moo Cow. 5 minutes later (when his old body tired out), he curled up into a little ball in the sun and fell asleep.

He was 17 at the time and even though his old, frail body was a fraction of what it used to be, he still loved to play.

Dogs have mastered the art of play. Wander into any dog park and you’ll see this art on full display: fetching balls, wagging tails, sniffing butts, romping around with each other. Dogs know how to play – why don’t we?

When we’re kids, we play. We play all the time – we play with dolls and soccer balls. We play with each other, lost in our own imaginations. Once we reach the age of, oh, 16, we don’t really play anymore. We fill our time with other preoccupations: dating, studying, getting ahead, going to bars, working hard, making money, taking care of a family, running errands, etc. We lose even the idea of play.

Sure we have responsibilities that dogs don’t. We have a host of justified worries that our dogs don’t have to worry about. But if we can set aside even 10 minutes of play a day – a time when we don’t worry, a time of mindfulness, a time when we can let go and forget about our stresses and responsibilities and engage in something that makes us smile – we are better for it. Our health and well-being are better for it. Play. Play with your kids. Play with your dog. Play basketball or pickleball. Play without worrying or thinking about anything else.

It might seem silly, but there is real value for our well-being in adopting this mindset.

According to PACT Creative (play, act, create, transform), an organization that creates adult workshops focused on play, playing “lowers stress, boosts confidence, and supports wellbeing.” It invokes laughter and allows us to spend time in the “here and now which can lower anxiety...When we play together…we are totally in the moment and we inevitably laugh together. And we know that laughing lowers stress, which in turn boosts wellbeing.”

Point being, we need to play more. But...what exactly is play?

Play, it seems, can be both an act and a mindset: playing a game (an act) vs. playfulness (a mindset). When it comes to the act of play, it means engaging in an activity that offers a sense pleasure -- something fun, like playing a game. It could be a sport – a friendly game of basketball, pickleball, tennis, or golf. It could be a board or card game, like mahjong. The key here is that it offers a sense of engagement and pleasure. If the game becomes stressful or lacking in pleasure, it ceases to be play.

Mindset is important here, too. According to Dr. Lynn Barnett, a professor at the University of Illinois who studies the effects of play on children and adults, playfulness is the ability “to frame (or reframe) a situation in such a way as to provide oneself with amusement, humor, or entertainment.” A game is “play” because it involves a sense of playfulness and amusement. But this concept of playfulness can extend to other areas of life, too: work, errands, cleaning the house, doing the dishes. According to a study conducted by Barnett, highly playful young adults reported less stress in their lives and possessed better coping skills because they brought their playful mindset to other areas of their lives.

Some people -- like some dogs -- seem naturally to have a playful personality. It comes easily for them. If you feel you have difficulty adopting a playful mindset, start with a game. Playing a game can help us get into the mindset of playfulness. When we play, life is fun and carefree. When we play, the difficulties and worries of life fade away and we forget, if even for a brief moment of time, life’s stressors.

We can learn from our furry friends here. They teach us how to play. They remind us of the importance of play. They remind us that life doesn’t always have to be so complex and gratification can stem from something as small and as simple as a stick. Or a ball.

Cale D. Magnuson & Lynn A. Barnett (2013): The Playful Advantage: How

Playfulness Enhances Coping with Stress, Leisure Sciences: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 35:2, 129-144

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