Whatever Your Goal, the Answer Is Play

Shane Trotter


Mansfield, Texas, United States

Strength and Conditioning, Kettlebells, Youth Development


We were born to play. All animals are, but none so much as humans. From giggling at funny faces and rolling balls across the floor to making forts and imagining new games, we spend the better part of our childhood playing constantly. This free-flowing exploration helps us develop interests, learn to solve problems and regulate emotions. It teaches us about the world and about interpersonal relationships, while also improving cognitive function and developing our physical bodies.


Nothing is as essential for our mind, body, and spirit. So when and why do we stop playing? Look around you. How many adults do you see who play on a normal basis? People are socially isolated, struggle to connect with people of different backgrounds, and suffer from increasing mental and physical health issues.



Play scientist Dr. Stuart Brown found that animals grow chronically depressed and anxious when deprived of play, and human mental health appears to be even more dependent on it. Dr. Brown also noted that upon investigation of the childhoods of mass murderers, “none of them engaged in healthy rough and tumble play.”


Play Isn't Age-Specific

We’ve created an environment that makes people think play is only for children. We condition parents to feel guilty for prioritizing their own health as if being a parent requires nothing else but to obsess over children at the expense of all other concerns.


This contributes to an even greater issue: we teach children that not playing is part of growing up, and so they are forced to stop playing earlier and earlier. Whether it’s the smartphone, the elimination of recess and P.E., or over-protective parenting styles, opportunities for free play have become scarce.


The costs are tremendous. As Dr. Peter Gray explains:


“Over the past half century, in the United States and other developed nations, children’s free play with other children has declined sharply. Over the same period, anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism have increased sharply in children, adolescents, and young adults… The decline in play has contributed to the rise in the psychopathology of young people.”


Play essential not only to youth development but for human health at all ages. Kids who don’t learn to play in youth are far less likely to play as adults, further entrenching poor physical and mental health, while increasing our social alienation and disunion.


The solution is simple. We must begin to respect the needs of the human as the core of all our social institutions, particularly schools. As this will not happen overnight, it is up to the fitness industry to promote communities of play.


Play Might Be All You Really Need

Most of the fitness media out there has a serious and regimented tone. Despite this, fitness and play are not mutually exclusive. While there are times where discipline, structure, and learning are essential to increase human performance, an element of play should always exist. It will promote far greater buy-in and long-term adherence.


For the most part, people simply want to move and look better, and those two goals are better accomplished through play than any other vehicle. Most people could accomplish their fitness goals without ever setting foot in a gym if they lived in an environment that promoted regular play at any age.



What are some options for playful exercise and workouts? Adults need help learning to play again, and games will quickly shock them back into their playful ways. My football athletes run tempos at least one day a week. However, on occasion, I replace these with games, which always seem to inspire far more running with far more enthusiasm. As football is just violent tag, we play a billion different tag variations: freeze tag, amoeba tag, shark, and minnows, you name it.


  • My favorite is speed tag, which I got from Jeremy Boone’s Movement Based Games. You block off a small area and split a group into two teams. One group is evading, while the other sprints in one at a time tagging athletes and then sprinting back so their next teammate gets a turn. When a player is tagged, they leave the area. The whole thing is timed and teams switch roles after everyone has been tagged. The goal is to tag everyone on the other team in less time than it takes them to do the same.
  • Another beloved game is Last Tiger Standing (rename as you see fit). Block off an area and have everyone tuck a shirt, towel, or penny into the back of their waistband. Everyone is for themselves as they seek to pull people’s shirts, eliminating them from play, while not having their own shirt taken.
  • A great one that can be used as a warm up is Med Ball Grenades. You split a room in half and divide teams. The goal is simple: at the end of an undisclosed time period, you want more med balls on the other team’s side than your own. Say go and pandemonium ensues as teams frantically scoop and toss med balls towards the other half of the room. Med ball volleyball is also a favorite. All you need is a med ball and something to toss the med ball over. The rules are just like volleyball, but rather than volleying, you catch and immediately toss the ball.


These are just a few of my favorites that require very little equipment and would work great as exercise for the general population. All of them are a great workout, but again, that’s not the whole point. They represent the type of play that should exist for humans throughout their entire lives.


Integrating Play Into Your Routine

If you want to incorporate more play without sacrificing the current structure of your training, consider adding more bodyweight skills. Watch kids play, and a lot of times, they’ll be trying and mastering new physical capabilities, and mimicking their friends. Physical skill development tends to come from playful experimentation with one’s own body.


Over and over, I’ve witnessed the joy and playfulness that erupts when I program new skills for my sports teams’ workouts. I now end every workout with skill work, like bar roll-outs, rope climbs, crow to handstands, and shoe Turkish get ups. If we are outside, I add cartwheels and fireman carries. All of a sudden, motivation soars and we become a real community, helping each other and excited to master new skills.


I try to do the same in my own workouts. For example, last Sunday I grabbed a light kettlebell and did some bottoms-up waiter walks with light goblet squats. I turned this into a little complex and added in a speed Turkish get-up. Then I cut out the kettlebell and went to a playful practice of my hula-hooping skills, cartwheels, and some GMB exercises such as Monkey and Frogger. This blended into a little handstand practice. I rotated skills as I got tired or wanted variety, finding creative ways to link it all together. Finally, my wife got outside to join me, and we took turns doing cartwheels and handstand practice until we finally decided to grab the spike ball game and play to 10.


I’m sure I burned some calories, but at no point was this the goal. I had a blast just playing around outside like you probably did every day when you were growing up.


Like good nutrition, play is an essential human need. We must promote play for our society to be its best. Even the most regimented, consistent athlete needs to work in unstructured play. It’s the best recovery, and often the best source of inspiration to come to each workout motivated. This can be in the form of skills or actual games. It requires nothing but a willingness to let go and explore the world around you.


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