Do you remember the excitement you felt as a kid at the playground? There were so many options to choose from: the sandbox, the swings, the see-saw. As adults, it can be hard to remember the last time we just played. Wouldn’t you love to bring that feeling back?
When was the last time you just played? No purpose, no plan, no schedule—just played. We know how good playing is for childhood development, but according to researcher Cale Magnuson of the University of Illinois, it’s good for us adults too.
“When children play, they discover what they’re capable of. As adults play, they can continue on this path of discovery, gain multiple health benefits, and simply have fun along the way. Engaging your body and mind is the best prescription to ensure physical and mental health throughout adulthood,” Magnuson says.
Benefits of play
In addition to adding a little magic to our busy lives filled with work and routine demands, play enriches life—inspiring growth and liveliness. It provides the opportunity for healthy stimulation that we may not be getting through work and other daily tasks. Play can also help us create new ideas that we can apply to real-life challenges.
Playing by engaging in intellectually stimulating activities can lower the risk of developing dementia. These activities trigger brain stimulation that increases cognitive reserves, potentially increasing the ability to contend with or compensate for changes linked with dementia. Play also takes the mind off stressors, giving the body a chance to restore itself.
Studies have connected activities such as playing chess, doing crossword puzzles, learning a new language, and playing a musical instrument with a lowered risk of dementia.
Play that involves physical activity not only increases energy, strengthens the heart, stimulates endorphins, and burns off the hormones, sugars, and fats released in the bloodstream as a result of stress, but also improves sleep.
Although exercise can often feel daunting, monotonous, and boring, playing isn’t, yet it provides similar benefits. When we’re playing with our dog, wrestling with our kids, or dancing to our favourite tunes, we’re exerting ourselves physically, but with no other goal than to have fun.
Playing in a social group strengthens personal ties and communities. Positive social connections are also linked to good health. In addition to decreasing the risk for developing mental illness and physical disease, a positive social influence can support health by allowing us to have rewarding experiences, take on meaningful roles, and develop skills to manage life’s challenges.
Social play could be as simple as goofing off with friends, sharing jokes with a co-worker, dressing up at Halloween, building a snowman, or playing a game of charades or a fun board game.
Make fun a goal
Making fun a goal can lead to sustained benefits. In her research on activity-oriented goals and happiness, Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky of the University of California found that activity-related goals maintain well-being, since people are more likely to continue to engage in things they enjoy.
“[By] adopting a new life activity … people obtain the potential to generate a steady stream of fresh positive experiences,” says Lyubomirsky. And the more the activity is in line with growth and connection, the greater its benefits.
- Sometimes, just bringing a playful spirit along with you in your everyday routine is all you need to spark that inner playful child.
- Join in a game of hide-and-seek with the kids (yours or your neighbours’!).
- Or just watch your kids as they explore and play on their own—they’ll teach you a lot!
- Crank up your favourite music and dance with your mop-partner as you wash the floors.
- Send a funny joke to an old friend—out of the blue—just because.
- Smile and shrug at your traffic buddies while you wait in line.
- Look for the bright side at work—something that brings out the playful spirit in you.
- Help someone else—just for the heck of it.
- Buy yourself a hula hoop—and show off to your kids!
All work and no play …
… makes Jack a dull boy, right? The old adage isn’t so far from the truth. Magnuson says, “To not play puts an individual at risk for many detrimental aging processes. A lack of physical and mental activity subjects individuals to a higher likelihood of developing chronic illnesses.”
When we don’t make time to socialize through play, we miss out on benefits such as a sense of belonging and emotional support to help us cope with stress. We also decrease the quality of our important relationships—without fun, all that’s left is … dull.
Who has time to waste just playing around, you ask? Even in our busy, serious adult lives, there are plenty of opportunities for play. The real joy comes from the inquisitive, playful energy that underlies the act of play itself.