You must enable JavaScript to view this website.

Re-Conceptualizing Play Across the Lifespan

Thank you to Michelle E.E. Bauer, PhD Candidate (Interdisciplinary Health Science, University of Ottawa), for providing this post.


As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect the physical and emotional wellbeing of Canadians across the country, conversations abound on how best to help families cope. Outdoor play, if done safely (only with household members and while adhering to physical distancing measures with others), may be one opportunity to bring some much-needed stress relief, lightness, vitamin D and sense of community to households during this difficult time.

Play is defined as any activity that is freely chosen, joyous, spontaneous, and inherently pleasurable. However, when outdoor play is discussed, it is discussed in reference to a child’s and not an adult’s engagement with their outdoor environment. Play is engrained in our societal consciousness as being only for and relating to children.

However, there is no reason why play cannot relate to everybody, everywhere, at any age. Outdoor play offers opportunities to learn about our environment and is important for physical, mental, and social development. Indeed, everyone, everywhere should have access to safe and enjoyable outdoor play. Play knows no bounds. The question then is how do we re-conceptualize play across the lifespan?

Re-conceptualizing play requires us to re-visit our sociological imaginations and perhaps challenge our restrictive terminology. A child may play by skipping rocks on a lake. An adult may play when they go for a run and decide to climb a rocky hill. An older adult may play by skipping to the mailbox. Indeed, play can be visualized across the lifespan, but perhaps not in a way that aligns with the preconceptions we have of it involving child-like activities.

To renegotiate our own conceptualizations of play, we need to explore play experiences as fluid (e.g., we may not like the same activities as we age); negotiable (e.g., feelings derived from play can change moment-to-moment); and affective (e.g., playing involves feelings and emotions that derive from participation in activities).

Understanding play as fluid means that our appreciation for play can change. While we may find riding a bike playful when we are young, we may find it tedious when we are older. The fluidity of play means that our relationship with it is adjustable and also negotiable. Understanding play as negotiable involves appreciating that our feelings towards play can change any time. We may start an activity only to find that we would rather be doing something else. An older adult who decides to hike through a forest may stop to take a photograph of a butterfly. Play is thus not something we need to ‘stick with’ – if we don’t like it, we can change it. The spontaneity of play means that we are constantly negotiating our engagement in it, as well as our feelings before, during, and after playing. Feelings of enjoyment, happiness, and excitement should be inherent in our engagement with play. They are part of our affective state and how we emotionally relate to particular play activities. If we are not happy with what we are doing, we probably are not playing and may want to consider doing something else more enjoyable. For some though, a little persistence may result in transition to enjoyment. It is fluid. A young adult kicking a ball around with friends may feel stressed if the play becomes too competitive and need to rest. Understanding play as fluid, negotiable, and affective may help promote adults’ and older adults’ engagement in outdoor play.

The desire for levity and playfulness is apparent on social media platforms that not one week ago were filled only with negative news related to the pandemic. Videos abound with Italians playing tennis with neighbours by leaning out windows, Spanish fitness instructors guiding classes from rooftops, whole condo complexes playing bingo from their windowsills, calling out ‘B-9’ across courtyards, and Colombian police leading balcony-Zumba. ‘Some Good News’ with actor John Krasinski has been watched by millions of viewers, and as Mr. Krasinski proudly chronicled in his latest episode, has been replicated by amateur broadcasters around the world.

In Canada, where going outdoors is still permitted, encouraging this type of levity through outdoor play for all ages may just be what our citizens need to stay healthy, stay happy, and stay safe during this difficult time.