The Importance of Play: Play is a major part of childhood and is valued so much that it is scheduled throughout the school day. But did you know that recess is just as important throughout every stage of life when it comes to generating vibrant health? We all know that we need to eat and sleep, but what about play? Play is just as vital for our well-being. Today we explore the benefits of play as an adult and dive into why and how you can get more of it in your daily life.
This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD
The Importance of Play: Why So Serious?
As we transition from childhood into our teenage years and further into adulthood, many of us lose our value of play. The reason behind this is complex, and much of it stems from the conditioning of our family unit and societal culture. We hear things like “grow up” and are told that we must behave like adults if we want to be treated like adults. But what exactly does it mean to act like an adult?
Certainly, maturation is required to be a functioning member of society. We cultivate a solid moral compass, a sense of responsibility, and a duty of care to those around us. But somewhere along the line, becoming an adult has become synonymous with becoming serious all of the time.
Being serious has its place in life, and knowing the difference between play and the serious time is vital to success. Perhaps that is one of the most significant signs of maturity: the capacity to distinguish when it is appropriate to focus or play. But to lose our value of play and silliness altogether takes an enormous toll on your mental and physical health over time.
If you haven’t already, break free from the notion of normalcy! What is normal is often far from healthy 1. We normalize behaviors and societal standards that have turned America into one of the most depressed countries in the world 2. Although a behavior may be typical, it does not mean it’s good or healthy for you!
The Importance of Play: The Benefits of Play
You might think that because play is so often associated with childhood, its benefits are limited to kids– but play has profound health benefits for individuals of all ages. Moreover, play’s impact on our lives goes much beyond just being fun; it also gives us tools for problem-solving, creativity, and relationship building 3.
Studies show that play improves various brain health markers, including memory. It also stimulates the growth of the cerebral cortex and triggers the secretion of BDNF, a substance essential for developing brain cells 4.
Playfulness has also been shown to, unsurprisingly, alleviate stress 5. This applies to children, adults, and even animals! Stress is a major cause of various modern illnesses and perpetuates multiple ailments associated with elevated cortisol levels 6.
Another benefit of play is helping you improve your relationships and connections to others. Various forms of group play teach us to problem solve, work together, share, and connect indirectly. With play and fun at the forefront, individuals tend to let their guard down and connect on a much deeper level.
Integrating play with your family, co-workers, or community can help deepen and strengthen the bond, which permeates many other aspects of the relationship, like having more trust. In addition, the experiences and bonds that occur during play can help pave the way for smoother times during periods of higher stress 7.
Finally, play helps keep you youthful. In the words of the National Institute for Play’s George Bernard Shaw, “we don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing” 8. Play keeps us vibrant and present and prevents us from taking life too seriously. Although there are times for seriousness, we mustn’t lose the capacity to let go, be silly, and embody the things that make childhood so damn fun. Life is short, so don’t forget to keep playing!
The Importance of Play: What is Play?
Regarding the benefits of play, sitting in front of the TV does not count. There are distinct differences between relaxing activities and playful ones. A long day or exhausting work week typically pushes the average human to mindlessly sit in front of a screen, binge-watching TV or scrolling through social media or YouTube videos. Although those are one way to tune out, they don’t qualify as play.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines play as wielding lightly and freely to keep in motion. Technically, play can be divided into various kinds of play, including 9.
- Rough-and-tumble play: speaks for itself! (tug-of-war, tickle fights, kickball, capture the flag)
- Ritual play: is all about creating, strategizing, and engaging in activities that bring people together for a common goal (chess, sports, board games)
- Imaginative play: letting your creativity run wild (storytelling, coloring, painting, improv, putting on a show)
- Body play: getting physically moving (yoga, hiking, roller coasters, surfing)
- Object play: with the manipulation of objects, building, and designing (lego, Jenga, snowball fights)
Each kind of play has a specific psychological and physiological benefit. Still, it’s also important not to get too wrapped up in play as a way to achieve a particular goal.
Playing hinges on being present in the moment and being social in a totally unstructured and creative way. The focus is simply the activity with no particular goal or play plan. Play often comes about on a whim when someone offers you to join in for a frisbee game at the park or your kids want to build a snowman outside. Play is full of laughter, joy, and often connection with other humans.
Play can also be done solo or with a pet, like when you decide to hop on your bicycle, ride around with no particular plan, or play fetch with your dog in the park. The key to play is having no specific agenda. Instead, you are there to unwind, go with the flow, relax, and just have fun.
The Importance of Play: How to Get More Play into Your Life
If you have made it this far and are thinking that you have let play slip out of your life, let’s explore some ways to bring it back to the forefront!
1. Set the Intention
This first step is essential if you have spent most of your adult life disconnected from play. Setting intentions helps foster an environment to notice the opportunities to welcome more play into your life. If you want to play more, keeping the intention is vital. You could consider writing a few post-it notes and leaving them around the house or at the office to remind you to keep playing.
2. What Does Fun Look Like for You?
After setting the intention to play more, get clear on what play looks like for you. There are many ways to play, but not all are suited for every person. You may want to write a play-filled bucket list full of ideas you would enjoy doing. You may also fill a fishbowl with the list, and every so often, pick out a piece of paper and play!
3. Schedule It In
Although scheduling and play don’t typically go hand-in-hand, it may be required as you get more familiar with having more fun in your life! Ideally, play comes naturally, but many of us have not played regularly for a long time. So pull out your schedule and pencil it in!
One way to ensure you get regular doses of play is to sign up for a sports team or another kind of regularly scheduled event. It could be trivia night at your local pub or a crafternoon at the local library. You could also round up your friends and organize a regular event, like an outdoor capture-the-flag game or hike.
You could also consider setting a minimum play time per week. Think of it as physical exercise, when you may plan to exercise a certain amount of times or hours per week to keep your physical body in shape. Could you play for the same amount of hours per week?
4. Have a Play Chest
Find a big chest, and fill it with activities and games you and your family enjoy. Having an area with games, cards, and craft activities will encourage you to play with them more often. You could also consider hosting friends monthly and opening up the chest together to have a play day!
5. Get Your Coworkers On Board
Playing has incredible benefits in the workplace. Although you may not be able to play during a business meeting or while working on a project, making time to bond and connect with coworkers by playing during off-work hours will help reinforce productivity, connection, and cooperation during the workday.
If you’re the employer, consider giving your staff a half-day off for paid playtime every so often. Studies show that staff is much more productive when they are happy 10. So keep your staff happy and playful, and everyone wins!
6. Play with Children
When in doubt, children are one of the best ways to get out of serious mode and into play. Children are masters of play; they are the best teachers to help you get back into the world of playfulness. It’s near impossible not to let your walls down, especially around toddlers. Children bring out the children in us, and reconnecting with that energy can help you carry more play into your life.
7. Make Playful Friends
If your current friend group is rather serious, it can be challenging to step into more play. Consider going out solo to a games night or joining a sports team to meet new people who share your desire to have fun! You could also consider posting on a notice board or local Facebook group, advertising a social event that might draw people in and create a new playful community.
Making playful friends also helps take the edge off of play because the need to schedule it or think about it will naturally fade away. When we have playful friends, we simply play more. Surrounding yourself with people who value play and laughter is undoubtedly one of the easiest ways to shift gears out of seriousness and into a life filled with play!
The Importance of Play: Summary
Many of us leave playing for the children and step into adulthood with too much seriousness. Playing has incredible mental and physiological benefits for our health at every age. Keeping playful supports brain health and helps us forge stronger life skills and relationships.
Play is about letting go of the goals and being present with the activity. To get more play into your life, set the intention, know what your favorite play looks like, schedule it, and consider integrating it into the workspace. When in doubt, surround yourself with kids, the masters of play!
Medical Disclaimer: The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended to share knowledge and information. This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD, for accuracy of the information provided, but we encourage you to make your own healthcare decisions based upon your research and in partnership with a qualified healthcare professional.
- White, Bowen Faville. Why Normal Isn’t Healthy How to Find Heart, Meaning, Passion & Humor on the Road Most Traveled. Stress Technol., 2004.
- “The State of Mental Health in America.” Mental Health America, https://www.mhanational.org/issues/state-mental-health-america.
- Yenigun, Sami. “Play Doesn’t End With Childhood: Why Adults Need Recess Too.” NPR, NPR, 6 Aug. 2014, https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/08/06/336360521/play-doesnt-end-with-childhood-why-adults-need-recess-too.
- “The Cognitive Benefits of Play: Effects on the Learning Brain.” PARENTING SCIENCE, 19 May 2021, http://parentingscience.com/benefits-of-play/.
- Wang, Sam, and Sandra Aamodt. “Play, stress, and the learning brain.” Cerebrum: the Dana forum on brain science vol. 2012 (2012): 12.
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- University, Utah State. “Have Fun! The Importance of Play in Couple Relationships.” USU, 17 May 2021, https://extension.usu.edu/relationships/research/the-importance-of-play-in-couple-relationships.
- National Institute for Play, 16 Jan. 2021, http://www.nifplay.org/.
- Brown, Stuart L., and Christopher C. Vaughan. Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. Avery, 2010.
- “Happy Workers Are 13% More Productive.” University of Oxford, https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2019-10-24-happy-workers-are-13-more-productive.