A man Playfully pushing other man on an office chair

Play Note #1

Adult Playfulness – What the Research Tells Us

Adult Playfulness – What the Research Tells Us

Traditionally, science and research has focused on: 1) PLAY as an activity; and 2) its impact on CHILDREN.  However, there is growing interest in focusing on PLAYFULNESS as a human characteristic and looking at ADULT playfulness as opposed to CHILD playfulness.  This PLAY NOTE seeks to characterize the research on ADULT PLAYFULNESS by reviewing the work of four researchers:

  • The team of Mary Ann Glynn and Jane Webster
  • Lynn Barnett
  • Rene Proyer
  • Xiangyou Sharon Shen

The Playfulness Pioneers started from a Workplace Perspective

Glynn and Webster at Yale University were leaders in defining and researching adult playfulness with their work in the early 1990s.  Their interest was in evaluating low and high playfulness in the workplace.   They viewed playfulness as an element in a person’s personality that was consistent across different circumstances.  In studies of five different populations, they asked adults to make judgements about the meaning of work and play.  As a result, they created the Adult Playfulness Scale (APS) which identified five different characteristics that contributed to playfulness: “Spontaneous”, “Expressive”, “Fun”, “Creative”, and “Silly”.  Higher playfulness scores were associated with positive work outcomes, including task evaluations, perceptions, involvement, and performance. This is the first effort to try to objectively measure adult playfulness.

Defining Playfulness from a Young Adult Perspective

Barnett’s research at the University of Illinois stemmed from studies of playfulness in children and questions about whether that trait extended into adulthood.  Her paper in 2007 proposed a new assessment tool, the Playfulness Scale for Young Adults (PSYA).  In her research, focus groups of undergraduate students first described characteristics of highly playful and non-playful people. Then, 649 students rated themselves on playfulness and on these descriptors, and rated others high and low in playfulness. Fifteen qualities were found to uniquely describe a playful individual, resulting in four component qualities of “Gregarious”, “Uninhibited”, “Comedic” and “Dynamic” for both men and women.  From this work, Barnett defined adult playfulness as “the predisposition to frame (or reframe) a situation in such a way as to provide oneself (and possibly others) with amusement, humor, and/or entertainment”.  

Barnett used the PSYA scale in additional published research, as identified here.  For example, research with Magnuson was published in 2013 using the PSYA and concluded that playfulness in young adults enables effective coping behaviors in the face of stressful situations. Barnett’s original paper on the PYSA is cited below.

Looking at Playfulness as a Personality Factor

In 2013, Proyer and Jehle did a comprehensive literature review that identified 17 different instruments that measured adult playfulness and related personality factors.  They identified five common elements in adult playfulness: “Humorousness”, “Cheerfulness- Uninhibitedness”, “Expressiveness”, “Other Directedness”, and “Intellectuality- Creativity”.   At that time, Proyer developed an initial assessment tool for adult playfulness called the Short Measure of Adult Playfulness (SMAP).  

Proyer continued to refine his work and in 2016 proposed a new assessment approach, the OLIW Model.  The model’s name is derived from the four elements of adult playfulness proposed by Proyer: “Other Directed”, “Lighthearted”, “Intellectual”, and “Whimsical”.  See the Appendix.

Proyer defined adult playfulness as “an individual differences variable that allows people to frame or reframe everyday situations in a way such that they experience them as entertaining, intellectually stimulating, and/or personally interesting.  Those on the high end of this dimension seek and establish situations in which they can interact playfully with others (e.g., playful teasing, shared play activities) and they are capable of using their playfulness even under difficult situations to resolve tension (e.g., in social interactions or in work type settings).  Playfulness is also associated with a preference for complexity rather than simplicity and a preference for –and like– unusual activities, objects, and topics, or individuals.”

Proyer and his associates (e.g., Brauer) have been prolific researchers on the subject of adult playfulness, including its relationship to senior well-being, strength of character, human sexuality, and sensation seeking.  Citations for Proyer’s work on defining adult playfulness and developing an assessment tool are as follows:

A Playfulness “Trait” Model based on Personality and Cognitive Theories

Rather than build an assessment tool for adult playfulness based on judgments made by an adult population or a literature review, Shen and colleagues took a more conceptual approach.  Using major theoretical paradigms of personality research, they built a model focused on one’s disposition (“drive”) for three playful behaviors: “Fun Seeking Motivation”, “Uninhibitedness”, and “Spontaneity”.  In the model, fun seeking motivation was further comprised of three components: “Fun Belief”, “Initiative”, and “Reactivity”.  Published in 2014, the  resulting assessment tool is called the Adult Playfulness Trait Scale (APTS).  See the Appendix.

Shen’s more current research has focused on how playfulness affects creativity, mental health interventions, and parenting.  And she is expanding her work on the APTS to build and test an ”interactionist” framework that includes two additional scales, the Psychological Situations for Play Scale and the Playful State Scale.  Citations for Shen’s original work on the APTS can be found below:


The Proyer OLIW Model questionnaire can be found here.  Based on his research, Proyer has provided information for the table below for interpreting responses to the questionnaire.  However, care should be taken in interpreting these responses without fully understanding the underlying methodology for developing the OLIW Model.

DimensionQuestionsAveragesCharacteristics of High Scorers
Other-directed3, 7, 11Men: 3.99-5.99Women: 4.36-6.18Use playfulness to lighten up other people or situations; like to tease and be silly with friends/ partners; like to interact with people in a playful way
Light-hearted2, 6, 10Men: 3.63-5.70Women: 4.45-5.56See life as a game/comedy rather than a tragedy; sometimes avoid thinking too much about consequences of their behavior; rely more on improvisation than careful planning; take time for play/pleasure
Intellectual1R, 5, 9RMen: 3.60-5.58Women: 3.60-5.49Enjoy playing with ideas/thoughts (“mind games”); like puzzles; enjoy intellectual stimulation; look for different ways to solve problems; try to solve problems in a playful way
Whimsical4, 8, 12Men: 3.56-5.62Women: 3.39-5.53Like to have “nonsense in their head”; enjoy playing pranks; find it easy to find something amusing in grotesque/strange things or situations; can find something amusing in everyday life; may have a reputation for liking the curious and strange

Shen has made available the APTS here, together with User Guidelines.  As above with the OLIW Model, care should be taken in interpreting responses without fully understanding the APTS methodology.

DimensionQuestionsCharacteristics of High Scorers
Fun-seeking MotivationFun Belief1, 2Has a deeply held belief that prioritizes fun, pleasure, and enjoyment in life
Fun-seeking Motivation Initiative3, 4, 5, 6Actively engages in creating fun activities
Fun-seeking Motivation Reactivity7, 8, 9Is very responsive to fun stimuli
Uninhibitedness10, 11, 12, 13, 14 Has the ability to liberate one’s mindset and invoke a sense of freedom, often through overcoming, negotiating, or disregarding perceived constraints
Spontaneity15, 16, 17, 18, 19Has the mental propensity to respond promptly without deep thought or premeditation