The Importance of Play as a PhD Student

I’ve spent the past two weeks cleaning out my attic. It was a mammoth task worthy of all the superpowers of Marie Kondo. The place was a mess, untouched for thirty years. I was determined to tackle it during the Covid-19 lockdown.

After the initial feelings of overwhelm, I started chipping away at the mountains of stuff strewn all over the attic. I committed to working on one corner at a time for thirty minutes to an hour a day. I couldn’t manage more – I was dusty and exhausted after each expedition.

But it felt good to slowly see progress and by the end of the two weeks I had two full car loads of trash to drive to the dump and other stuff to drop into a charity shop. But what I got from the experience was more than the satisfaction and space that comes from de-cluttering, it was actually being reminded of the importance of play. Let me explain.

I found all my old toys, children’s books, magazines, and school notebooks – we had kept everything and it was like excavating my past. The seeds for my future career path and work as a historian were all there.

I had forgotten how far back my interest and curiosity about the past had been. I had forgotten how much I had loved to play as a child with my toy knights and castle, to read about the Normans and medieval life, or to use my crayons in my Book of Kells colouring book. It reminded me what first drew me to want to become a historian.

Think about why you are doing what you are doing. How far back does this drive stretch? What got you excited as a child? Who were your favourite teachers? Chances are you were inspired by one of your teachers or by a special person in your life like a parent who nurtured your early interests.  People forget that education is fundamentally about relationships.

But my trips to the attic also reminded me of the importance of play.

The best scholars and the most productive scholars that I know all still have a childlike sense of wonder and play for what they do. A few summers ago I got a chance to research at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Albert Einstein’s old office was just down the corridor. I was privileged to meet some very eminent scholars there some of whom were getting on in years. What struck me at the time was how they seemed to have maintained that sense of childlike wonder and curiosity for what they were doing. They had kept a sense of play.

I was in touch with my former supervisor recently and recalled how he would play squash with a colleague a few times a week and how delighted he was that he finally beat him in tennis.

I now realize that my peak performance states and my best work is done not only when I am focused on purposeful practice each day, but when I am looking after my body through regular exercise and have some form of weekly play activities where I can decompress. So as a PhD student at St Andrews I made sure to play golf once a week and go hiking each Sunday along the coast. In Oxford I played squash with a friend once a week and went back to rowing (my high school sport I had dropped for a few years) and spending time on the river in the famous punts. In Vienna I made the time to go to the Opera at least twice a year, eat Apple strudel at least once a week, and go for Sunday hikes in the Vienna Woods.

I also realized that my anxiety levels and stress would skyrocket and I’d find it much harder to get work done or concentrate when I neglected these things and got caught up in the busyness trap. In tandem my productivity, drive, and creativity dived. Physiology is linked to peak performance. While play is necessary for creativity and maintaining mental and emotional fitness – the kind of stamina that everyone needs to get through the PhD.

Cleaning the attic served as a needful reminder of these fundamentals.

Excavate your own past. Why are you doing what you are doing? And how can you bring more play into your life? Give yourself permission to play again and see what effect it has in helping you achieve your PhD.