Playtime used to be thought of as just for children, but many experts now recommend play as an important source of relaxation and stimulation for adults as well. There’s even a National Institute of Play that uses scientific research from the fields of neurology, developmental and cognitive psychology, to animal play and evolutionary and molecular biology to quantify the value of play.
The National Institute of Play argues that a life or culture that doesn’t have enough or any play as a part of it, presents a major public health risk factor. Studies have linked deprivation of play with the prevalence of depression, stress-related diseases, interpersonal violence, addictions, and other health or well being problems.
Play can be with your partner, at work with colleagues, with your children or simply throwing a ball for your dog. Whatever form your adult play takes, more play is a great way of fueling your imagination and creativity while boosting your emotional wellness, and it can be fun too.
Kids at Play
Whether it was kicking a tin can around on the street, or simply hanging out in the playground with our ‘crew’, for most of us as children, playtime used to be the favorite time of day. Playtime was a time when we could develop or build new friendships, learn new things and just let off some steam, all of which most adults could do with today. Adult playtime may seem silly, but couldn’t we all do with some silliness in our lives?
One of the world’s biggest celebrities, soccer icon David Beckham was recently quoted in an interview as playing with Lego, the toy bricks, to relieve stress, Ellen DeGeneres is known to play pranks on many of her guests and former U.K. Prime Minister, David Cameron was known to relieve the stresses of a day in government by playing Angry Birds on his phone. Play isn’t just about messing around and having fun, it can be an important tool for relieving stress and promoting an overall well being.
Society tends to dismiss play for adults as being a waste of time, petty, unproductive and only suitable as a guilty pleasure. But more and more research is demonstrating that just as play is vital to children, play can be important in adulthood for a healthy ageing process. Let’s take a look at how play can benefit not just your health but the well-being of those who surround you. Remember all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy and maybe even a dull man as well!
What Is Play?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines play as “to engage in an activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose”. The dictionary goes on to give the example of children playing by a pool and even when using play as a noun states “especially by children”. For children, playing can be vital for their development, it helps them with their social relationships and can stimulate their ever growing brains too.
Adults, or grown ups aren’t supposed to play. We’re supposed to be too busy, have other problems and more important things to do like providing for our families. But as it turns out, regular sessions of play for adults can be just as important as everyday mundane tasks and even improve our performance in those tasks. Play for adults can stimulate your brain, boost your productivity and the happiness you feel when playing will improve your overall health too.
The only type of play many adults value or that’s considered honorable is competitive play like team sports or even a selling contest at the office. Although many psychologists don’t agree on what exactly play is, play can be best described as any activity freely chosen just for the joy of it. Board games like Scrabble or Cluedo and other social activities like baseball or soccer may be the first thing you think of when asked about playing, but play can be a solitary affair too with some people even thinking of gardening or DIY as play.
Why Do Adults Play?
The idea of play for some children isn’t always their free choice with parents often telling them to go outside and play, or schools even have regimented playtimes at certain periods of the day. (Although most children don’t need too much encouragement to play.) As an adult you can choose when, or if, you play but are more likely to need encouraging as guilt may make you think you should be doing something more important. Or perhaps play is considered infantile and not very macho.
For an adult, play is a time when you can forget about work and other commitments and is a chance to be more social outside of a structured environment. On the baseball field your boss may become just the pitcher, not the person who employs you and pays your wages (unless of course they’re a bad loser, then remember he/she is YOUR BOSS!). Sat around a Scrabble board, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a nurse, a banker or a store worker (being an English professor can help though) as you’re all there just for the fun of it.
To truly enjoy play, there doesn’t always have to be any specific point to the activity other than having fun and enjoying yourselves. Play for adults can simply be sharing a joke with colleagues, throwing a Frisbee around on the beach, building a snowman, dressing up and going out trick or treating with the kids, taking the dog to the park for a game of fetch, playing charades after a dinner party or going for a long bike ride with no particular destination in mind. Play might achieve something at the end, like a prize-winning rose bush or finally getting that car you’ve been tinkering with every weekend working, but by focusing on the activity rather than the end goal, you can get the same joyful abandonment of childhood and reap the many health benefits.
Adult Play as a Form of Exercise
Although playing an online Call of Duty tournament isn’t going to improve your fitness too much, other forms of play can be a way of meeting your body’s physical exercise requirements while having fun. Sports you play like that Thanksgiving touch football game or a weekend game of softball in the park can be an ideal way to keep fit, even some video games systems like the Wii motion controllers can boost your physical fitness.
The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate activity every week. That’s 150 minutes of playtime, 30 minutes a day, five times a week. Exercise in the gym rarely seems like a play, but going for a brisk walk in nature or a game of catch in the garden can be much more fun. Just being active outdoors or taking the dog a walk is often considered a form of play and can have a significant effect on both your physical and mental health.
Green exercise is the term used to describe the additional beneficial effects of exercise outdoors rather than just physical activity by itself. Research has shown that people who spend more time outdoors had lower rates of depression and enjoyed lower blood pressure. Higher levels of physical activity or exercise were linked to both the length and frequency of visits to green space. Taking the kids to the countryside or a local park not only gives you more chance to play but could also be seriously improving your fitness levels, much more than a workout at the gym. (They’re called workouts for a reason, they’re work not play!)
Play for Adults Can Help Relieve Stress
As we’ve already said, play can be a great form of distraction and take your mind off the worries and stresses of daily life. But play can also physically help reduce stress, when we play we feel joy which triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s feel good chemicals. These endorphins promote a greater sense of well-being and can even in some cases temporarily relieve physical pain too. Endorphins are basically the body’s pain-relieving happy pills but completely natural.
Joy can also cause you to smile or laugh more, with science suggesting a good giggle can help lower stress levels. In one study where a group watched comedy videos while a control group sat quietly, the participants who watched the funny video had improved memory and had lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Playing a prank or telling a few jokes at lunchtime is sometimes playful and the resulting laughs can ease away the morning’s stresses, preparing you for the afternoon ahead.
According to the American Psychological Association, over half of American adults suffer from health issues due to stress and 22 percent of them say they suffer with chronic stress. Finding just a little time to play can help lower those cortisol levels and reduce your stress. By cutting down your stress you can prolong your life and reduce the risks of a heart attack, stroke, immune diseases and depression. Many doctors argue that stress is the number one killer in the world so making that time to play can be important for everybody, not just kids but adults too who normally have more to stress about.
Play to Improve Your Brain Function
Many of the games we played as children can challenge our adult brains too and improve the brain function. Playing chess or other board games, completing puzzles or simply coloring in pictures will help prevent memory problems and improve the daily cognitive abilities of our brain. Playing these games with family and friends will add a social interaction element that helps combat feelings of stress, depression or isolation.
A recent study showed how learning new names for color could lead to an increase of gray matter in the brain. Participants in the study were given brightly colored cards with silly names for the color and told to remember these new names over a period of three days. After the initial three days, MRI scans of their brain showed a significant growth in the gray matter, the important part of the brain involved in decision making and the thought process.
Studies of very sociable animals like rats have shown that being deprived of play can lead to changes in the prefrontal cortex, the emotional epicenter of the brain. Experiments where rats were denied the chance to engage in play by fighting and wrestling showed the rats developed deficiencies in their prefrontal cortex. Unfortunately there are only animal studies to demonstrate this as similar experiments would be deemed inhumane on adults or children, almost a source of torture for some.
Play as an Adult Can Help with Our Decision Making and Problem Solving
Many companies are now aware of the power of fun to foster innovations and solve problems. Much of today’s emphasis on adult play comes from the offices and campuses of Silicon Valley where companies like Apple or Google often push the boundaries of modern thinking. A workforce that plays together is happier and works better together.
Google was one of the pioneering companies of play at work when it set up stations all over its HQ and campus with ping pong, billiards and table football games. The company encourages its employees to play and collaborate which in turn helped with team building and cooperation. Many companies nowadays have team building days with a fun activity like paintball or laser questing, which may seemed forced at first but become fun and playful as you participate. At the end of the day it’s just like the games of hide and seek you played as a child, just this time you’re too big to fit under a small tree or inside that kitchen cupboard.
Making better decisions and more creative solutions to problems will also benefit your health. If you’re traveling and don’t know what to eat or what exercise to do to stick with your fitness regime, resourceful decision making may help you get more creative with the solution. Think about booking into an apart-hotel instead of the usual motel so you have your own kitchen facilities and can prepare meals or surveying your room and looking for items you can use in a workout are both examples of better health decisions.
Play for Elderly Adults Can Help Keep Them Younger
Joining in more creative projects, the process of exploring new ways of having fun or playing, and problem solving or building new solutions are of great benefit to both the mental and physical health of elderly adults. Sometimes as we get older the mind may seem more childlike as we lose some of our functionality but more importantly we have more time to fill as the kids leave home or you retire from work.
Play is a way of keeping the mind and body active. It may be a modest game of bowls, a coloring book, starting to paint or maybe an afternoon poker club in the care home lounge. All the benefits of play we’ve looked at above are especially of value to the elderly and encourage social interactions at what may be an otherwise lonely time of life.
Play or creative activities that stimulate the cognitive functioning of the brain have been shown to be beneficial to patients who are suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease by reducing depression and increasing vitality. Just as a child learns from play it can be thought of as retraining for many elderly patients, with a joyful game of catch being shown to improve stability and walking abilities.
Adult Play and Relationships
We’re not just talking about adding a bit of spice to your love life, although that can be one form of play between two consenting adults, but play is one of the most effective tools for developing social relationships. Healthy relationships will benefit you not just psychologically but have many positive effects on your physical health too.
Playing together helps develop and improve your social skills that are often learned in the give and take situation of play. As children, play teaches verbal communication, body language barriers, cooperation and teamwork. Adults can continue to grow these skills through the medium of play.
We’ve all heard the phrase ‘play nicely with each other’ and this can apply to adults just as much. By playing together with friends or colleagues you curb negative feelings of resentment or anger and socialize in a group environment. By avoiding these feelings you can reduce your stress and its negative effects on your physical health or the silly rash things you may sometimes do when feeling negative emotions.
Emotional wounds will often be repaired by playing in a group or with a friend. If somebody’s feeling emotionally insecure, choosing to play with a more secure partner may help replace those negative self beliefs with more positive assumptions and actions. Playing tennis with somebody who’s more physically active, or simply better than you, will often inspire you to make positive changes, which your play buddy can even help with.
How to Add More Play to Your Life
Perhaps the first and biggest step in adding play to your routine is making more time, time when you can switch off from the daily grind of work or temporarily forget about those other commitments. Just make more time for yourself to have fun whether it be half an hour on the Xbox, setting aside some time to do a painting course or a weekly gathering with friends to play a round of golf or head to the park for a kick about with a ball. Even making more time to play with your pet cat or dog can be considered adult playtime and a great stress reliever too.
Some workplaces may be unsuitable for play especially in environments like an industrial kitchen or a construction site, but there are many ways you can add play to your work day. At lunchtime find activities you can play with your colleagues, if you’re lucky your company might have embraced this idea too with many parking lots at office blocks having an area where you can shoot some hoops or maybe a company gymnasium. Keeping a sketch pad or camera in your desk drawer will enable you to take creative breaks, joking around with coworkers in a coffee break, the occasional office prank or completing word puzzles together can all be acceptable forms of play at work. Rather than have a negative effect on productivity it’ll boost morale, teamwork and innovation in the workplace.
Playing at home may involve cracking out that game console to join an online community, inviting a few friends round for a weekly card game or just making more time to play with the children. Why not try a few parlor games next time friends pop round for the night as seen in this funny Youtube video:
You could also get out more and arrange evenings out with work colleagues or a group of friends and go bowling, play pool, a game of miniature golf or a night in a karaoke bar. Anything you actually want to do and are not forced to can be classed as play, so get like a child and have some fun, it’s a much more enjoyable way of keeping healthy.