When men play, it's a serious business: football, cricket, record collecting - each is an act of devotion. And women? Women are in danger of forgetting how to play altogether. By Ann Treneman
It has been many years since I had much time for play, and so I approached last Saturday with great seriousness. Schedules were juggled, children were removed, mobile phones turned off. An entire day was set aside for a countryside tour. By 2pm I was exhausted. If this is play, then it's no picnic. By the time I got home, I felt as if I had worked all day long.

"It is just that you aren't used to it," said a friend. "You've got to build up a tolerance." She is right. I need to practise and I'm going to start by watching how men do it because this is an area where the sexes are not equal. Men have managed to get almost everyone to believe that their play - football, the pub, cricket and, dare I say, politics - is vital to life as we know it. How do they do it?

I tried turning to The Playful Self for the secret; it's a new book that aims to put play at the centre of women's lives, but is almost as serious as my day out. I was on page 175 and looking up footnote 13 when my six- year-old interrupted to tell me that she had stopped playing with her friend Katherine because she had called her a rude word. The word was so rude that the six-year-old felt I could not handle it.

At this I began to wonder, not for the first time, if the book's author, Rebecca Abrams, and I are living in the same world. A social researcher and journalist, she encourages us to recall our own childhood play, but honesty requires me to report that for every pleasant memory there is a beheaded Barbie, a broken bone, a feud over forts, a dead turtle. She, on the other hand, offers this glowing description of playing with her baby daughter: "We chase and hide and tickle and giggle, we sing songs, we dance, we pull silly faces, we make funny noises. And, when I can forget the washing up, the thank-you letter and the dishwasher, it is wonderful."

Play, she insists, must become a feminist issue. I thought for a moment that she was being playful about our girlpower age - in which play seems to be the only feminist issue. No such chance. "I am convinced that the issue of lack of play, this urgent need to rediscover our playful selves, is one that cuts across the board and has relevance to all women today," she writes earnestly. "Without play as a central, thriving aspect of our lives, we are emotionally, physically, spiritually and socially disadvantaged."

I needed a reality check and called the six-year-old back. What kind of games did she play in the playground? "It, Stuck in the Mud, and Kiss Chase," she answered, but then noted that Kiss Chase has been more or less banned because "lip-to-lip" was against the rules.

So were rude words, I noted. "M-u-u-u-m," she cried, "everyone says them but I cannot tell you what they are."

The reality check then went horribly wrong because she started hassling me to play with her. This galvanised me into action. After all, I am very busy. So busy that I find myself reading magazines instead of books and am especially interested in articles that promise to give me more "Me- Time". This is the kind of thing I might even call play. Ms Abrams cites a survey that says women do 85 per cent of the laundry, 77 per cent of the cooking, 75 per cent of the cleaning and 66 per cent of the shopping. We deserve a little light fantasy reading.

The Henley Centre for Forecasting claims that working women have 3.3 hours of leisure each weekday (men have 4.8 hours) but I'm not sure when this actually occurs. And, if a baby arrives, studies show that free time plummets by 52 per cent for women and 37 per cent for men.

When I was a child and played for a living I never realised how hard my mother was working. Later on she told me that 10 years of her life remain a blur. Then my mother-in-law told me that when her sons were young, her husband took them out for three hours every Sunday to give her a break. "And do you know what I did with those precious hours?" she asked. "I went into the bedroom, locked the door and went to sleep."

I thought of this last weekend and realised that most of us do need to practise at the very idea of playtime. All those articles on Me-Time have not been wasted and my own particular theory is that real time can only be retrieved by giving something up. My family has quit arguing in the morning - raised voices are banned - and it is much less pressured as a result. Much time can be saved by giving up smoking, hangovers, serial whingeing, ironing. My latest time-saver has been to stop recycling - life is too frantic to think that a washed tin is a glorious thing.

Others make similar decisions but are more devious. One woman I know simply stopped cooking (though she never admitted to it). For decades she had provided two meals a day on demand and now, clearly, the kitchen was closed. Or so I observed as the instant salads, the frozen meals, the M&S-style dinners and the take-out pizzas were produced. Everyone sat and ate and no one ever said a word about cooking.

A National Council of Women of Great Britain survey found that almost half of all women want more time for themselves - not for more work or family or recycling - and Rebecca Abrams takes this as a sign that "women are waking up to their need for play". But in this context, play does seem just another thing to add to the Things to Do list. "Isn't this just one more thing to worry about?" asked one woman. Ms Abrams disagrees: "One minute is an impossibly short time in which to get anything useful done but it can be long enough to entertain a playful thought or enjoy the sensation of a playful impulse." This seems an impossibly female thing to be doing - why not take a risk and book a squash court instead?

And so we come back to the question of what, exactly, is play? It is not the same as leisure nor is it the opposite of work. Leisure and work only exist in relation to each other - play is in a different sphere. Play is time off for oneself, Ms Abrams says, and any activity that releases us from the troubles and concerns of daily life. She has picked out a handful of areas in which women can be more playful, including making noise (growling, whistling, singing), dreaming, dancing, sex and food.

In many ways this reminds me of the company that ran a course for its employees on how to be spontaneous. It's not that we don't already play, it's just that we need practice. Look in any dressing room and you will see women at play; find a place in front of a mirror and observe the lipstick follies. Go into any hairdresser's and see women at play under the driers. Most hen nights are terrifyingly "fun". Adventure, manipulation, making up rules, feuds, romance - all of these are play, too.

And then there is always swearing. "So what words are used in the playground?" I ask later as my six-year-old beetles around in her fairy wings. "Everything!" And what exactly is everything? "You know, the f-word, the c-word, the b-word." I ask in a tight voice: "And what exactly is the c-word?" The reply came in a stage whisper: "You know - cow." I felt more playful already and vowed to practise again soonn

'The Playful Self: Why Women Need Play in Their Lives' by Rebecca Abrams is published by Fourth Estate on 8 May at pounds 12.99.

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