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Why we all need to play more (and how to do it): Tips from Michael Rosen

How much do you play, with or without children being around? Have you ever tried to unload the dishwasher while holding your breath?

Michael Rosen is a former children’s laureate, the author of Book of Play and the presenter of Word of Mouth on BBC Radio 4. He told Woman’s Hour how he plays, why he thinks we all need to play more and shared some simple tips for living a more playful life...

What do you mean by ‘play’?

“Play for me is trial and error with no fear of failure, or very little fear of failure. Play has got to have that sense of no pressure from outside. It’s very self-motivated and it’s got to have that sense that you can try something - it may not work, but then you try something else. The important thing about play is that it’s open-ended and, if there are rules, you’re the one that makes them.”

What if you could hold your breath for as long as it takes to unload the dishwasher?
Michael Rosen

Why does play matter for both children and adults?

“When we’re born into the world, it’s not of our making, you have no choice. There are all the social structures, all the physical structures. You can go through life being more passive than active, just accepting this world as it is. In order to operate in the world, and indeed to change it, we have to discover for ourselves that we have the potential to be active. We’re not just a passive receiver. At that point, you have the sense of change, that you can be an agent for change and that the world is full of possibilities. Psychologically that’s very important.”

How do you play?

“I’m quite interested in holding my breath. It’s interesting to know how long you can hold your breath for. Could you hold your breath for as long as it takes to unload the dishwasher? At one level, this is completely nutty, nerdy, daft stuff - no relation to anything that’s of any use. And then you think, well actually, dishwashers can be quite oppressive because, guess what? You have to unload them every day, load them... it’s relentless. And you can think, 'well what is life for? Is it literally just for loading and unloading dishwashers?' But if you make it so that it isn’t the same old ritual every day and you do a silly thing like holding your breath, suddenly you’re treating the world as if it’s something you can act on, instead of the world acting on you. So although it’s daft, it has a serious aspect to it.”

What are your tips for fitting more play into our lives?

1. Start easy – start with something you already enjoy

“What are the things that you really enjoy doing?” asks Michael Rosen. “Let’s say it’s cooking, then if you then ask yourself, well what if I was just a bit more playful with it? So you follow a recipe, and then you just say, well what would happen if I just played around with some of these ingredients? You’re playful with it. The advantage of cooking is that it has an outcome for both you and the people around you, so you can say, ‘well, did you like it? No?’ Well you won’t do it again. Then you can try something else.”

2. Move onto the more mundane things you have to do

“Let’s say you walk every day and it’s a little bit boring. Well, what happens if you’re a bit more playful with it? Where did my parents walk, and how did they walk? What if I imitated that? So you think about walking as a sort of memory thing. Or what about if you thought about looking at the way other people walk, and then quietly at some point, imitated their walks? You play with walking.”

3. Use play to tap into your imagination or fantasy life

“[Take] the thing you always wished you'd done and play with that. If I’m in a cab and a cabbie says, ‘Oh you’re a writer? I wish I’d done that’, then I say, ‘Well have you got children? Do you tell them stories?’, ‘Oh yeah’. So I say, 'well what stories do you tell them?’, ‘Oh well I’ve made this thing up about this cabbie’. And I go, ‘That’s wonderful!’. They are playing with the idea of cabbiness. If they’ve created a dog cabbie, well that’s just magic!”

4. Try writing a tongue twister

“It’s good fun to make up tongue twisters because all you’ve got to do is find two sounds that are a bit like each other. Like ‘s’ and ‘sh’ and then you think of all the s and sh words you know and then you see if you can repeat it.”

5. Or get a pen and paper and doodle with a friend

“Doodling is a lovely thing to do. Do your doodle and then colour in your doodles and then swap round. Do your doodle, pass it to someone else then pass it to someone else.”

Woman's Hour is on BBC Radio 4 on weekdays at 10am and at 4pm on Saturdays. You can listen to all episodes via BBC Sounds.