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W2C: Accessing Imaginative Play as an Adult

April 06, 2022 by Lauren Gombas

What is Imaginative Play

With the help of some torn paper, crayons, and willing adults, Dixie (one and a half years old) and Anna (three years old), turn a plastic playhouse into a post office. Anna scribbles on the pieces of paper and hands the pieces to Dixie, who delivers them to their dad. Dad then sends Dixie back to drop off a piece of writing at the post office. The game ends. Dixie gets distracted with snacks, and Anna picks up a leaf, waves it like a wand, and turns everyone into ghouls. Both girls exhibit imaginative play. Play gives the girls the opportunity to work together, manipulate the space around them, build relationships, and explore personal meaning.

Accessing Imaginative Play as an Adult

As children, this type of play requires little effort. Somehow, our minds come equipped with the ability to create new worlds, build elaborate storylines, and create mind-boggling pieces of art. As we age, however, we spend less and less time in the playground of our imaginations. Instead, we are trained and socialized to focus on logic, and our imaginations receive attention much less frequently.

So, what stops us from tapping into this form of creativity?

Play and the Brain

Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist who studies the brain, measured 1,200 different genes and found that after half an hour of play, the genes experienced a drastic change. This change was specific to thinking and understanding social interactions: In other words, play helps us build the tools we need to develop positive social connections. The changes we encounter in the prefrontal cortex during childhood set up the brain for future success: we learn problem-solving, make plans, and regulate emotions. 

Through much of his research, Panksepp concluded that play is associated with the more ancient part of the brain. This means that play is associated with survival and is passed down through all species of mammals, including humans. 

Why Adults Need Imaginative Play

Connecting with Others

Panksepp also experimented with putting two male rats who differentiated in their exposure to play, in a box with a female rat. The female rat preferred the rat who experienced play more to the rat that played less. Of course, play doesn't necessarily need to be used to attract a mate; however, it shows that play is essential for connecting and understanding others.

This comes as no surprise as research conducted with other mammals shows that little access to play correlates with problems such as fitting in and serves as a quicker route to aggressive behavior. Furthermore, Panksepp himself believed that the rise of ADHD and ADD comes from lack of access to play, and those with one or both benefit significantly from taking time to play. 

Processing Grief

Dr. Shelley Carson, who lectures at Harvard University and has written about maximizing imagination, highlights the importance of expressing creativity as it can redirect negative energy during times of loss. The problem, Dr. Carson says, is that during the grieving process, the left side of the brain, or the part associated with positive emotions, deactivates, and many people struggle to reactivate this side of the brain. This means people are stuck with their grief longer. This isn’t to say that people shouldn’t allow themselves to grieve or experience negative emotions; it’s just to say that they need to access their creativity so that the process does not last longer than necessary. 

John Cohn, an engineer and scientist who was part of Discovery Channel's The Colony, says that those who keep a sense of play in their careers and lives are lucky. However, as adults, he claims that life sometimes can squeeze the fun out of us. 

After his teenage son Sam died, play became an essential part of his family's moving forward process. The family decided to make Sam Stones, stones made out of various materials, including chocolate, metal, and a stone that even went to space. Cohn’s intention with the stones was to have family and friends who loved his son pass the stones around as a way to feel still connected to him. Cohn then created an app that traces where the stones have traveled and invited others outside of his family to participate. Here, his curiosity kept the memory of his son alive, and he found an approach to coping with the pain from his loss using creativity and curiosity. 

Developing Curiosity

Imaginative play engages with curiosity, which coaches and non-coaches must bring to all coaching sessions. For example, without curiosity, it’s impossible for coaches to truly understand their client, to build strong connections, or to know which questions to ask. Likewise, non-coaches can use curiosity to solve work problems, help friends, and understand themselves better. The University of California Davis asked participants in a study to rate their curiosity after learning trivia questions.

These participants were placed inside of an fMRI machine so that researchers could see what was happening inside of the brain when participants reported feeling highly curious about an answer. The findings were rather interesting: even when we aren’t particularly interested in something, once our brains have experienced curiosity, we are more likely to remember information that isn’t interesting. In addition, they discovered that the part of the brain circuit responsible for rewards and pleasure also lit up in the fMRI scan, not just the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory. 

Imaginative Play and Coaching

Coach Training EDU founder John Andrew Williams notes that coaching's superpower is in its ability to create a shift in awareness. Imaginative play invites coaches to explore theirs and the client’s curiosity, which can open up this superpower. 

A Harry Potter Imaginative Play Exercise

Professor Lupin, a character in the third Harry Potter book, introduces his students to a boggart, a magical creature that becomes whatever its viewer fears the most. Professor Lupin asks his students to imagine their fear with a sense of humor to take control back from fear. Neville Longbottom, whose boggart turns into Professor Snape, pictures Professor Snape wearing his grandmother's clothing.

  • Example: Let's say that the client's fear isn't a Hogwarts professor but being tackled to the ground by a dog. Invite the client to shut their eyes and imagine the dog coming toward them. Then, at the last second, invite your client to imagine that the dog has transformed into something genuinely amusing. Maybe the client turns the dog into a hot dog, or perhaps the dog turns into a balloon and floats away. Encourage your client to come up with something so amusing that it results in their laughter. Now that the client has transformed the terrifying thought into something funny, it will be easier for them to shift gears into examining the fear scenario with a new perspective. 

A Tower-Building Imaginative Play Exercise

Like any strong building, a tower needs a good foundation. For this exercise, the client will imagine building a tower as a metaphor for developing a better relationship with a family member or friend. 

  • Example: Let’s say that the client comes to a session with the intention of re-establishing a bond with a child they’ve felt estranged from for years. They might imagine the base of this tower with positive shared memories, love, care, shared values, common goals, and a commitment to each other. Maybe they pretend that the blocks consist of concrete, masonry, and steel. Next, they might stack the skills they need to support the relationship. They might add good listening skills, patience, endurance, and thoughtfulness. Maybe these blocks consist of PVC pipes, steel, blue paint, and cement. The client can go as high or tall as they’d like, and they can use any materials they want, even silly ones. Maybe the client wants to make a tower out of diamonds or bubble gum. It doesn’t matter the materials. The idea here is to help your client identify what resources they currently have and what resources they need (both internal and external) to further develop their relationship with their child.

Although imaginative play seems to come to children more naturally, it's ingrained in the ancient part of the human brain responsible for survival. Creative play can teach adults to connect with others, move forward from grief, and develop curiosity. While coaches can use imaginative play exercises like those above to help clients tap into their creativity and curiosity, it doesn’t always have to be a full exercise. Sometimes, simply asking a question requires the use of one’s imagination, such as, “If your emotions made your skin change colors, what colors would your skin be right now?” can be effective. 

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