It's said you can learn more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation. Many credit Plato for this timeless quip. Others link it to a 17th-century self-help pamphlet for young gentlemen. Wherever it came from, I approve. That’s because travel is the adult world's great secret playground.
Stuart Brown is a man who really wants you to not ask where you can go, but where you can play. That’s why the 80-something psychologist/author/speaker founded the National Institute for Play in 1996 – to help us all tap back into our individualized “play nature” that often gets drummed out by pressing parents, or school, or work.
To Brown, and many psychologists, play isn’t just for play’s sake, but because it fills an essential need. Citing Darwin’s theories, Brown says that the fact humans (and many mammals) continue to play — despite its inherent risks – only proves there is a “pay off.”
The plus side is that it “ups the plasticity of our brains,” he told me by phone. “It gives us an emotional uplift and makes us think new thoughts.” In other words, play makes us more creative and happy.
But to reclaim our inner “play nature,” once it’s stamped out, isn’t always easy. He thinks travel is a way to find it.
“If you go back into your life and find those elements that were freely gleeful you can reclaim your play nature,” Brown said. “For example, I think of the first bike I had, riding around my South Chicago neighborhood. It was joyful. And that’s part of my true play nature — being physical, moving, seeing things.”
“Almost all of us have access to that,” Stuart adds. “The search for novelty is fundamental to play. People should allow that to guide them in their travels.”
We live in the golden age of travel. More people are traveling to more destinations than in any period in human history. It’s not just about where we go, but how we go that’s changing.
We used to go simply to see things (get that photo of the Eiffel Tower!). Increasingly we’re restless on our trips, searching for something “real.” So we immerse ourselves in neighborhoods, sometimes staying in local homes. We make new friends with people unlike us. We try new foods, new phrases in new languages to us, sometimes dress differently. Basically we’re assuming a pretend local persona. And we have a great time.
Friends, is there really a better description for “playing”?
And that means travel is almost the only “play” outlet for adults, who tend to fill ever-diminishing pockets of free time – that is, in between work, feeding dogs and kids, paying bills, and complaining about all the above – with something other than the latest apocalyptic series on Netflix.
To illustrate, look at that 1560 painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. More than 200 people are playing their sweet medieval hearts out. That is, kids. No adults are to be found.
Maybe for your next itinerary, let your inner 11-year-old be your guide.
Over the years I’ve done weird things on my trips. I tried out Mountie bootcamp in Saskatchewan, used a Monopoly board as a guidebook to the real source of its property names in Atlantic City, and followed Billy Joel lyrics on a road trip of Long Island, New York. I realized, only in hindsight, that I’ve built a “Travel Life” based on little vanished dreams I had when I was last playing, back in Cold War–era Oklahoma.
I found it wasn’t a feckless pursuit, but a game-changer in seeing the world. When your goal isn’t to see a place, but to make or learn something specific by making travel a “quest” — locals will always be more eager to help you.
A couple years ago I went to St Lucia with a $100 sky-blue clarinet I named “Jeff.” My goal was to get a clarinet lesson, and basically see what would happen.
I ended up getting two: one from the clarinetist of a police band, the other from a 12-year-old at a school for disadvantaged kids overlooking the blue bay in the capital Castries.
“Your clarinet,” the latter said shaking his head. “Very bad.”
Elsewhere locals stopped me in street markets to try it out. Others invited me into homes, or to go get a beer, or check out a nearby steel-drum school. In a fishing village – way off the tourist radar – a local Elvis impersonator making tombstones in his front yard stopped me to chat about music.
I didn’t master the clarinet in St Lucia. And that was never the point. I found locals warmed to my quest immediately. I got deeper into local communities I simply wouldn’t have seen otherwise. To paraphrase the Plato-esque quip that started this piece, I learned more about St Lucia by playing there a few days than if I stayed a year on a resort.
I guess I also learned I need a better clarinet.
Robert Reid is Managing Editor for Modern Adventure. He no longer uses Billy Joel lyrics for any travels, but is considering a road trip based on Huey Lewis’ “The Heart of Rock’n’Roll” lyrics.