Play is not only a relief and a respite from the seriousness that stress, illness and trauma bring to our lives, it is actually therapy. Play time is therapeutic time, point blank. Child psychologists use this healing tool often, because play is a child’s way to express and release any inner turmoil or fears that the child doesn’t even consciously know they have.
But it isn’t only therapeutic for children, it’s therapeutic for adults too.
In fact, I would argue that engaging in some form of play daily is one of the best things you can do to safeguard your physical health. From physical play (whether through dance, playing a sport like golf tennis or bowling, painting, playing a musical instrument, bird watching, hiking, you name it!) to mental play (such as crossword puzzles, chess, sudoku, reading and discussing books, watching plays, learning a new language, etc…) many studies have proven there are mental and physical health benefits from time spent in play.
Just look at the animal world â€” play is huge!
A study published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology in 2001 on animals and animal behaviors found that the size of the brain of the animal species is directly correlated to the amount of time they spent playing (per body ratio) and a higher complexity of play.
So animals that had small brains engaged primarily in feeding and other survival behaviors, while larger brained animals spent more time in play and they play the engaged in was more complex. This applies to humans as well! We have huge brains compared to our body size and we are meant to spend time in play.
Another study found that play behaviour, not tool using, relates to brain mass in a birds.
These researchers found that brain mass in birds correlated to how playful their behavior was… but not correlated to their ability to use tools to complete tasks. It seems it is play that warrants a larger brain, not problem solving or task completion. Social play was associated with both the largest brain mass to body mass ratios and with the longest lifespans of these birds.
The medical literature in humans is just as clear â€” play can help save your brain and protect your health, even lengthening lifespan. One recent study show that being playful, doing crossword puzzles, taking a new route home, enjoying long walks, exercise, traveling, having new experiences and learning new skills, exploring new artistic avenues of expression, and continuing to learn throughout a lifetime drops Alzheimer’s rates by 64%, just by learning new things and being playful and being interactive and retaining a sense of plasticity to the brain.
Play keeps the brain young and actually helps to prevent dementia… and it’s never too late to begin. Taking a class on photography, learning a new language, joining a book club, so many ways to learn and grow and play can be done almost any where and at any age.
A study published in Neuroscience Letters in 2003 showing that play stimulated neurotropic growth in several parts of the brain. As Dr. Stuart Brown says in his book Play, â€œwhen we stop playing we start dying.â€ But I would say the reverse is also true, when we start playing, we start living!
I know that at times of great stress in my life, it was ever more crucial for me to have avenues to release that stress. For example, during medical school anatomy class, when we were dissecting human cadavers â€” a process that was intensely uncomfortable and psychologically stressful â€” I relished my time spent playing intramural soccer, and I also picked up a paintbrush and painted my first painting on a canvas.
A large study published in Leisure Sciences in 2014, backs up my experience. They analyzed students in rigorous educational paths from three different universities, and found that the more playful the student was, the more successfully they coped with the high levels of stress.
Play may also be brain protective as we age. The Journal of the International Neurophysiological Society published a study in 2011 that showed simply doing crossword puzzles was enough to significantly delay the onset of memory decline. And Geriatrics and Gerontology published a study in 2019 showing that almost all forms of playtime activities prevent cognitive decline (some examples were: reading, playing board games, music, art, handicrafts, crossword puzzles, even learning computer skills) and that activities that involved intellectual stimulation and communication was particularly effective.
Physical play, activities that gets your body moving and reduces sedentary time, has been shown to decrease the risk of death, prevent the development of certain cancers, lower the risk of osteoporosis, and ultimately increases longevity.
The European Journal of Humour Research published a study in 2013 showing that the more playful an adult was, the higher they rated their physical and mental well being. As you intentionally welcome play back into your life, you’ll notice that through play your optimism, your smile, and your sense of humor returns. So it’s very important during times of increased stress to specifically carve out space in your life to allow for play.
When you give yourself time to play, it gives your body a time to repair and recover. Play gives you a period of time where stress hormones can decrease, for you to relax and shift out of stressful mind-frames, and even release unhealthy coping mechanisms.
In fact, replacing unhealthy coping mechanisms with play can actually keep your brain plastic and flexible, ward off mood disorders, and even strengthen your relationships with others (if you choose play activities with a social component.)
A study published in 2008 in Therapeutic Recreation Journal found that leisuretime activities were so powerful in helping to cope with stress that they recommend incorporating play and leisure activities into a therapeutic healing plan.
A study published in Leisure Sciences in 2013 found that the more playful an adult is, the lower their levels of stress were and the less they utilized negative, avoidant, or harmful coping mechanisms.
While there are so many stressors in life that you can’t control, one thing you can do to bring more satisfaction and well being into your life is to prioritize play. So be intentional about creating welcoming a time for play into the structure of your daily, weekly and monthly routines. It’s important to have space for things you actually enjoy! Pare down stressful obligations to make space for activities, whether mental or physical, that you truly enjoy.
Figure Out Your Play Personality
Need help remembering what brings your inner child out? Read through these different Play Personalities below to help you discover… or re-discover â€” what activities might bring you joy.
Remember back to childhood as you circle the play personality that is closest to your play style growing up. Then read through them again and put a check beside the one that is your play style now. Under this list are a few simple follow up questions to get some insight into activities you might enjoy bringing into your life right now! These are the play personalities suggested by Stuart Brown, M.D. in his book: Play, How It Shapes The Brain, Opens The Imagination, and Invigorates The Soul.
- The Joker: primary enjoyment is being class clown, practical joker, goofy fun, going for the laughs
- The Kinesthete: enjoyment comes from pushing physical limits, feel the result of movement and often enjoys play in the form of physical competition
- The Explorer: enjoyment comes from discovering the world, searching, traveling, researching, understanding, experiencing
- The Competitor: enjoyment comes from play centered around winning games, keeping score, outwitting others, interaction, usually very social
- The Director: enjoyment comes from planning and executing events and interactions, relationships, satisfaction from a job well done
- The Collector: enjoyment comes from obtaining objects or experiences, either alone or with groups, enjoys social interaction and clubs based on common interests
- The Artist: enjoyment comes from making things, creating things, experimenting with different forms of expression, color, decor, visual arts
- The Storyteller: enjoyment comes predominantly from imagination and expressing the imagination, written word, spoken word, communication
Journal Questions To Inspire More Play
Questions for reflection:
- Do you have the same style of play personality now that you did as a child?
- Growing up, when did you feel most free to do what you wanted to do, and what did you choose to do during those moments of freedom?
- Do you do anything similar to this in your life, in any form, right now?
- Are there new hobbies or interests that appeal to you as an adult?
- Do you make time to do them? Why or why not?
- Do you feel more free to play with your spouse, with your family, with a child, with a pet, with your friends? Which relationships in your life allow the most room for play and fun?
- Are there new elements of play that you would like to begin to incorporate into your life now?
- If you had to pick a physical way to play, a physical movement for your body (i.e. taking a walk, dancing, tossing a ball with your dog, playing team sports, etc…) which would be the most fun for you?
- If you had to pick an intellectual way to play (i.e. playing a board game like chess, drawing, discussing a book in a book club, learning a new language, etc…) which would be the most fun for you?
Commit to carving time each week towards one playful activity that feels uplifting, fun, interesting or even simply relaxing.
Once you figure out what style your play is, you can start incorporating similar activities â€” whether through social groups or alone â€” that allow you to access to the type of play that appeals most to you. I highly encourage you to make play an uplifting part of your monthly, weekly, and even daily routine!
Today try to remember what lights you up inside and brings a smile to your heart.
Whether it is dusting off an old pair of rollerblades, or heading outside for a game of catch with your dog, to crafting or creating something, learning or playing an instrument, dancing to your favorite music, trying a new recipe in the kitchen, heading outside to watch the sunset, blowing bubbles in your living room, singing songs around a campfire, going on a walk, playing a pick up game at a park with friends, playing card games with your family, doing a jigsaw puzzle all week long, riding a bike, laying down to look up at cloud shapes in the daytime or twinkling stars at night, writing poems, learning how to sew, creating a scrapbook, practicing photography, and on and on and on…
…know that time you devote to playing is every bit as healthy for you (& let’s face it, probably even more healthy) than the time you spend in serious mode, tackling things like chores, work, emails, and catching up on the news.
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To your naturally resilient, astoundingly incredible human body!