Expanding Playfulness

Ruth Chiang Kao, MD, FAAP

September 28, 2023


How would you describe yourself at work? Focused, efficient, stressed, overworked, or playful? If you scoffed at the last option, I don’t blame you. Even though we work with children – the role models of playfulness – it’s easy to get bogged down in the workflows, the orders… and yes, the charting. Research tells us that play makes us more resilient, happier, more productive, and healthier, but it often seems unrealistic to “play.”

Unrealistic, but not impossible. In his book Play, Stuart Brown defines play as “an absorbing, apparently purposeless activity that provides enjoyment and suspends self-consciousness and a sense of time. It is also self-motivating and makes you want to do it again.”

To me that sounded wonderful but unattainable, until learning about the eight styles of play. Most of us have a natural, dominant play style. Learning our favorite styles of play, and the styles of those around you, has substantial benefits.

The 8 Play Styles:

  • The Joker: Plays with some sort of nonsense (making silly sounds and faces with a child, playing a practical joke).
  • The Kinesthete: Loves to push and move the body and feel the results (athletes, dancers).
  • The Explorer: Delights in trying new experiences, such as going to new places, emotionally exploring and deepening feelings, and mental discoveries.
  • The Competitor: Enjoys games with specific rules and fighting to be number one.
  • The Director: Likes planning and executing. Is a born organizer who throws parties and instigates group events.
  • The Collector: Relishes having the best collection of objects or experiences (antiques, sneakers, wine, etc.)
  • The Artist/Creator: Enjoys making things – anything. The point is to make something beautiful or functional (drawing, woodworking, making music, sewing, gardening).
  • The Storyteller: Uses imagination as the key to play. This group includes novelists, cartoonists, those who like reading stories and watching movies, and performers who use dance, magic, and acting to create.

It’s okay if you don’t know your style from reading the list. If it’s unclear, try this quick exercise: close your eyes and think of five peak experiences in your life - times when you were excited, in the flow, having fun, perfectly content. Don’t worry about picking the “right” experiences - just go with the first ones that come to mind. Do you see a pattern? Now rate your play styles in order of preference. Still unsure? Try listing examples of how you play in each style. The easier it is to list examples, the more dominate the play style.

“Instead of viewing play as the activity, we can see it as how we do the activity.”

When I first did this exercise, I came up with “Explorer” as my dominant play style. It’s easy to explore when you’re backpacking in South America, but it seems impossible when you’re a working mom with toddlers. Yet, my life was un-playful enough to give it a try during my lunch break. A typical lunch consisted of catching up on charting and orders while eating at my desk, then a frantic “15 minutes until the next patient!” realization. What if I spent those 15 minutes exploring? Taking it slow and easy, for one 15-minute period I paid attention to the sun, the breeze, flowers, trees… and found a fuzzy caterpillar. A mind-blowing experience, no. But it was sweet, and for a moment I lost my sense of time in contentment. I returned to my patients with more energy and yes, playfulness. I’m also a Kinesthete, so some days, it feels better to move during those 15 minutes.

I encourage everyone to identify their play style. Then, make a list of things you have to do and things that you want to do. Today, spend 5-10 fewer minutes on the “have to dos” and 5-10 minutes more on the wants.

Many of us are conditioned to the “work hard, play hard” mentality, but that limits play to be a specific activity for a specific amount of time AFTER all the work is complete. Let’s accept the reality that the “have to do” list is never-ending, and gift ourselves more time and energy in the “want to do” column. And since we cannot abandon our work duties, we can instead infuse playfulness into them.

Instead of viewing play as the activity, we can see it as how we do the activity. Every task is an opportunity to play. As Mark Twain said, “work and play are words used for the same thing under differing conditions.”

One way (of many) to create better conditions is through ritual, as Meik Wiking describes in The Little Book of Hygge. So, how about lighting some candles when you start charting? Or doing a celebratory dance and taking an excessively dramatic bow when done? Cheesy? Maybe. Playful? Yes.

How will you expand the playfulness in your life?

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

About the Author

Ruth Chiang Kao, MD, FAAP

Ruth Chiang Kao, MD, FAAP is a general pediatrician, coach, and mother. She is a co-founder at Appleseed, a global development nonprofit, and an AAP representative at the Women Physician’s Wellness, Equity and Leadership Alliance. She is passionate about physician wellness, and coaches physicians and parents to expand their leadership, balance, and playfulness. Find out more at fulfilledlifecoaching.com