Adults Just Want to Play

When my sister-in-law sent me a video about a nine-year-old boy who built a make-shift arcade from cardboard boxes, I felt like I had struck gold. There are few things that delight me more than witnessing a child's imagination at work. I expected a heart-warming few minutes that would float around my consciousness for the rest of the day, maybe longer. I did not expect a viral phenomenon that millions of people would be watching.

In the video, Caine Monroy, a boy from East L.A., takes over a room in his father's auto parts shop and creates a reproduction arcade made entirely from cardboard boxes. He makes his own "fun passes," and manually feeds tickets to the winners through a slit at the base of each "machine." He has no customers until a guy walks by and notices the arcade. This guy happens to be a filmmaker and internet savant, who arranges a flash mob to surprise Caine, giving his arcade the audience he has always dreamt about.

I admire Caine for his creativity and youthful resilience. However, what intrigues me most about Caine's Arcade is not the story itself, which is a gem. It is the millions of people watching the video and the dozens of major media journalists -- from the Wall Street Journal to Forbes -- who have proclaimed Caine their hero.

Caine is, to me, a bright and inventive boy. But he is essentially doing what kids have done since the beginning of time -- playing make-believe, mimicking the adult world, and maintaining the belief that anything that can be imagined is real. So why has this story struck a nerve with so many adults? And why now?

American society has strong feelings about play. The most deeply entrenched is the belief that play belongs in specified spheres, entirely separate from everyday life. We have playgrounds, playrooms, playpens, playdates and playgroups -- all places and times where society has declared play to be acceptable.

Society has also designated play-appropriate ages. We encourage children to go out and play, we buy them toys and games, and we encourage creativity to make learning fun. As children become young adults, however, we change our tune. Our notions of adulthood kick in and tell us to take away the toys, remove recess and make sure that our kids "grow up." And as for play time? Well, that's over.

But we miss it.

That is precisely why a video like Caine's Arcade matters to so many adults. We, collectively, miss the part of our childhoods that was dedicated purely to fun. We sit at our adult desks and handle our mortgages and car payments and pine for our days of play. And the craziest part is this: there is absolutely no reason we should have ever stopped.

According to Stuart L. Brown, M.D., founder of the National Institute for Play, humans need to play at all ages. And as more people see the power of creativity in the adult world, we are realizing that our future depends upon play -- or, as Brown calls it, "our greatest natural resource."

Play creates in us the ability to improvise, innovate and adapt. When we play, we see things not only as they are, but as they could be. We see endless potential in a box of Tinker Toys or Legos because the only limits are the ones we imagine. But when we stop playing and using our imagination, we begin to accept the status quo and our place in it. According to Brown, that sense of confinement creates an emotional rut, where we are stuck hoping for change but feeling unable to effect that change.

The truth is that we never grow out of the need for play. According to Sasha Rosen, founder of themed entertainment site, "the reason why Disneyworld is the most popular theme park in the world is because it is built for kids and adults in equal measure. Adults want to play every bit as much as kids do, and theme parks give them just the excuse they need."

If Brown and Rosen had their way, our entire society would be more playful -- from the classroom to the workplace to the line at the DMV. When we as adults can accept our need for play, then our society can begin its inevitable shift towards a more playful future.