Social Play: A Longstanding Way to Cope


Why do so many adults resist social play?

“Unconscious envy is manifested in our culture in a variety of pervasive and subtle forms of hostility toward the natural playfulness and vitality of children…For some adults, the inner child represents a weak but threatening part of the psyche, and therefore it requires periodic symbolic defeats by the forces of self-control.” – Adam and Allee Blatner, The Art of Play: Helping Adults Reclaim Imagination and Spontaneity

Listen to the Evolved Nest’s podcast on social play here.

Watch the Evolved Nest’s podcast on YouTube here.

One of the most obvious traits mammals typically share is playfulness (Burghardt, 2013). Self-directed free play with others is the gold standard for play. Among those living in our ancestral environment, nomadic foraging groups, the whole group plays, making play a multi-age experience (Gray, 2014). There, playfulness contributes to bonding and peaceful cooperation.

In animal studies, the benefits are enormous to brain development, turning on many genes and releasing growth factors in the cortex, increasing socioemotional intelligence and the ability to cope with stress (Pellis & Pellis, 2009). In fact, lack of sufficient play leads to social incompetence.

If playing is so beneficial, why do so many adults resist it?

In their book, The Art of Play: Helping Adults Reclaim Imagination and Spontaneity, Adam and Allee Blatner (1997) describe the sources of adult discomfort with play:

  • They have gotten used to a narrow range of accepted behavior.
  • They are shy or uncomfortable in group settings.
  • They are mildly depressed.
  • Their play experience was restricted to competitive or structured activities.
  • They lack experience with singing, dance, drama.
  • They feel awkward when others are more playful.

The Blatners write that a major psychological phenomenon is repression. They provide a list of unacceptable features that are frequently repressed, including being vulnerable or needy, being ignorant of anything, making mistakes, loneliness, having qualities assumed to be of the opposite gender, and silliness.

The Blatners also discuss some of the history of denigrating play and young children.

Unconscious envy is manifested in our culture in a variety of pervasive and subtle forms of hostility toward the natural playfulness and vitality of children…For some adults, the inner child represents a weak but threatening part of the psyche, and therefore it requires periodic symbolic defeats by the forces of self-control.” (p. 100).

Interestingly in light of some of my recent blog posts on empathic care for infants, the Blatners name as one cause of play denigration the concern with “spoiling babies”:

“A relevant example of this complex of unconscious envy, hostility, sadism, projection, and rationalization was the phenomenon of overconcern about “spoiling” infants in American and parts of Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The idea was very fashionable and frequently propounded by physicians and educators. The prevalent belief about spoiling was not coincidentally associated with a number of other ascetic, late Victorian traditions.

“The whole issue of spoiling was overgeneralized, so that giving a child pleasure and attention even in infancy, was considered dangerous. The truth is that it’s not possible to spoil a child with pleasure and attention up to the age of about two or two-and-a-half. Nevertheless, in the atmosphere of overconcern generated by many repressed adults who were unconsciously afraid of their own inner child, parents were cautioned against expressing affection, feeding on demand, and almost any other indulgence or response to the child’s needs. This included discouraging behaviors that were obviously aimed at seeking attention. Any attempts by the child to negotiate alternatives were redefined as ‘just trying to get his own way,’ and therefore deserving of refusal for that reason alone. It was important that the child learn ‘who was the boss.’ Although the conscious belief was that such an approach to child rearing was an effective way to build strength of character and self-discipline, it was used most often as a rationalization for plainly sadistic motivations on the part of the adult.” (pp. 101-102)

The Western world’s intellectual history of simplifying reality also suppresses play. This includes dualistic belief systems, both religious (something is good or is evil) and scientific (something is true or is false). This two-fold logic contrasts with other worldviews such as those in the Eastern world of four-fold logic (something is A or B, both or neither). Other dualistic pairs that straightjacket people’s orientation and behavior include adult/childish, male/female, serious/foolish, civilized/primitive, strength/weakness. Imaginative play challenges such black-and-white categorization. Reality is a gray, overlapping, interpenetrating mixture of categories.

Subjective experience is not black and white. Playing helps the individual better “reality test.” To engage in fantasy play with others—a voluntary, varied, modifiable, reciprocal pretending—can help the individual better identify areas where, in regular life, the player actually has been phony (reality testing) and empowers the players to be creators rather than victims in their minds and lives.

The Blatners are happy to report that Western society is moving away from a singular focus on features that decreased play and playfulness: physical labor, seriousness of adulthood, asceticism toward self-expression, and unquestioning respect for authority and tradition, making playfulness and spontaneity more acceptable. The technological culture in which we live now requires the very qualities that social free play brings about: inventiveness and social flexibility.

Perhaps the most tragic reason the Blatners mention for adults not playing is that they do not know how to play, especially with young children. That is the focus of the next post.


Blatner, A., & Blatner, A. (1997). The art of play: helping adults reclaim imagination and spontaneity. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Burghardt, G.M. (2005). The genesis of animal play: Testing the limits. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gray, P. (2014). Play theory of hunter gatherer egalitarianism. In Darcia Narvaez, Kristin Valentino, Agustin Fuentes, James J. McKenna, and Peter Gray, eds, Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution: Culture, Childrearing and Social Wellbeing (pp. 192-215). New York: Oxford University Press.  

Pellis, S.M., & Pellis, V.C. (2009). The playful brain: Venturing to the limits of neuroscience. Oxford, UK: Oneworld.

Listen to the Evolved Nest’s Podcast on the Importance of Self-Directed Play

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.