The Importance of Play

Cartoon showing people playing

This post was written by Shanleigh Bechard, MS, LPC, NCC. She is a behavioral health therapist at the Beloit Area Community Health Center.

Shanleigh Bechard, MS, NCC, LPC-IT
Shanleigh Bechard, MS, NCC, LPC-IT

When was the last time you played? The word, “play” often reminds us of childhood memories with family or friends, exploring nature or getting lost in imagination. We think of play as carefree fun, time for relaxation, pleasure, enjoyment, and recreation. But why do we think of play as only something for children?

Developmental psychology figures such as Lev Vygotsky and Jean Piaget agreed that play is a biological, innate, and universal form of expression, especially during childhood, and is an essential part of human development. Through play, we develop cognitively, emotionally, and socially. It is an avenue for learning about ourselves, making meaning of the world, exploring new ideas and perspectives, and navigating relationships.

If play is such a healthy and positive activity, why don’t we continue as adults?

As we age, to-do lists and responsibilities take precedence over leisure and pleasure. Housework, childcare, and the grind of the work week do not leave much time or energy for fun. The idea of playing as an adult may feel silly, unproductive, or a waste of time. If we can find time in our hectic weeks for leisure, many of us spend in it zoned out in front of the TV or staring at our phones.

The responsibilities and stress of adulthood have caused us to lose the lightheartedness and playfulness that many of us embodied as children. Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, we stopped playing. But this does not have to be the case.

Benefits of play

Playing as an adult has endless benefits. Play relieves stress, stimulates our minds, boosts our creativity, and challenges us to continue learning. Worried about wasting time? Taking a break for recreation can actually increase productivity at work or at home (this makes sense because breaks allow us to return to our work refreshed, rejuvenated, and with new energy).

Play is also incredibly powerful in building, strengthening, and mending relationships. Shared experiences (with friends, family, romantic partners, coworkers, etc.) foster feelings of closeness, trust, and companionship. Play keeps relationships new and exciting and can even attract new relationships!

Play also adds enthusiasm and joy into our everyday lives, a powerful antidote to feelings of boredom, emptiness, depression, or lack of meaning. Play boosts our mood and makes us feel good.

Including more play into our daily lives doesn’t have to be overwhelming (and shouldn’t be).

Tips for play as an adult

Here are a few suggestions and ideas for playing as adults:

  • Schedule time into the week and plan ahead. Life can get full. Sometimes if it’s not scheduled, it won’t happen.
  • Approach the day with a light heart and a playful attitude. “Will this matter in a year from now or five years from now? Is this worth getting stressed over?” Asking yourself questions such as these can keep daily events in perspective.
  • Surround yourself with fun people. Just like on the playground, it’s hard to have fun when Debbie is being a downer.
  • Check yourself. What’s your body doing right now? Are you hunched over, arms crossed, jaw and shoulders tense? Try an open body posture, with relaxed shoulders, loose muscles, open hands, and a half-smile. An open body posture communicates to our brain that we are safe, relaxed, and ready for fun.
  • Be present. Focus on the here and now. Allow yourself space and time for a break, placing worries, thoughts, and distractions aside.
  • Play outside. Spend time fishing, biking, rollerblading, swimming or kayaking. Go exploring in the woods, lay in the sun, or walk barefoot. Plant something and get dirty. Bonus tip: leave your phone at home or in your pocket.
  • Create something. Write a poem, song, or story. Spend time journaling. Sing or play an instrument. Make something with your hands, allowing your creativity to explore (remember art class?).
  • Cook or bake a new recipe. Try a new restaurant, have a picnic, eat a favorite childhood snack, or explore a new cuisine.
  • Move your body. Attend a Zumba or boxing class, go for a run, practice yoga, go dancing, or learn how to golf. Get sweaty and play hard.
  • Spend time with friends and family, trying new activities, playing games, exploring new places, or traveling to new destinations.
  • Play with children, remembering to approach their play with curiosity and an open mind. Children know how to play, and they can help us remember how.

There are endless ways to play, and there is no wrong way to do it. Each of us has an inner child that still exists inside, and they want to come out and play.

“It is a happy talent to know how to play.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson