Think back to when you were a child. Do you remember playing tag or hide-and-seek? What about relaxing on a grassy lawn and staring at the clouds? 

Children are masters of play. They don’t need encouragement (or instructions) to engage in play. They just do what they enjoy—drawing, singing songs, building forts or making messes in the kitchen—and go at it with total enthusiasm.

It’s not so easy for adults. When you spend your days making a living, keeping your household in order and tackling dozens of other adult obligations, doing something just for the fun of it feels almost…irresponsible.

But that’s a mistake. Humans have an innate need for play, just as they have a need for sleep. Play is vital for problem-solving, creativity and joy. People who don’t give themselves time (or permission) to play are more likely to be anxious and depressed…experience less optimism…and may be more susceptible to unhealthy behaviors, like avoiding exercise or excessive drinking.

A Biological Need

Humans aren’t the only ones with a deep need for play. Among animals—particularly the social mammals and some birds—play is nearly ubiquitous. Examples: Dogs tussle in play fights…and hippos turn backflips in the water.

In humans, it’s no surprise that play blossoms during childhood, when the brain is rapidly developing. It’s a part of neural evolution because it stimulates the development of new connections between brain cells, as well as between different brain centers. 

Good news: Play is linked to positive brain changes later in life, too. This is why adults who engage in play tend to be more creative and socially adept. 

But that’s not all. In observational studies, people with early dementia who engage in physical play, such as dancing, show slower rates of mental decline.

Laughter, the sidekick of play, has health benefits, too, releasing “feel good” endorphins…helping to protect the heart by improving the function of blood vessels…and boosting immunity. 

What Is Play?

Most of us think of “play” as something that involves specific activities—a round of golf…dancing…watching sporting events, etc. But these and similar activities can be the opposite of playful when they’re done in a competitive, goal-driven spirit. 

Not long ago, I watched golfers at one of the country’s premier courses to see if they were laughing and having fun or grumbling every time they hit a poor shot. About half seemed to be so competitive and desperate to win that it hardly seemed like play at all.

An activity is playful when it doesn’t have an immediate purpose—you do it for its own sake. You feel as though time passes before you know it…you experience a diminished consciousness of self…you improvise as you go along…and you want to keep doing it simply because it makes you feel good.

For some people, a round of golf is play. For others, play might be watching a good movie…hopping on the swing set at your neighborhood park…skipping stones on a nearby pond…folding paper airplanes…or sitting down with crayons and a coloring book. Whatever it is, the results will be the same—a momentary sense of joy.

The Playful Mind-Set

The desire to play is hardwired. Those who internalize society’s message that work and success are all-important are giving up something that’s crucial for mental health. Paradoxically, they may not reach the same levels of success as those who cut loose now and then.

When I read obituaries, I am struck by how often the deceased individuals are remembered for their sense of play. The headlines may include things like, “A Lover of Laughter,” “A Frank Zappa Fan” or “A Spitball-Shooting Executive.”

How can you rekindle (or increase) your sense of play? My advice…

Start with something physical. It doesn’t have to be strenuous. It could be playing patty-cake or jacks with a grandchild or balancing on a wobble board in your living room. Movement and “body play” are among the first activities in human development. Revisiting these types of activities later in life can help you overcome the self-censoring that inhibits unrestrained play.

If physical play isn’t for you, just wrinkling your nose to make funny faces can make it easier to get into a playful mind-set.

• Reach back to your play history. What used to give you pleasure…engaged all of your attention…and made the time pass effortlessly so that you wanted to do it again and again? It could be outdoor activities, such as hiking or swimming in a lake, or indoor activities, such as playing a game of Crazy Eights or listening to the music you loved as a teenager. 

The activities that you enjoyed when you were young are likely to be the same ones (maybe in a different form) that you’ll enjoy today. Someone who grew up putting together model airplanes might take up woodworking or other crafts. A lover of the outdoors might discover (or rediscover) horseback riding.

• Don’t make it complicated. Everyone enjoys something. The trick is to recognize what you like and give it a more prominent role in your life. Be open and let yourself experiment.

• Find some fun-loving friends. Whether it’s a coffee klatch with buddies who like to tell jokes or a four-legged friend whose goofy expressions make you smile and want to play a game of fetch, there are opportunities for play all around us. It’s just a matter of seeing them!

Important: While you want to prioritize play in your daily life, don’t try to schedule “playtime” at a certain time each day. Simply try to adopt play as a state of being and allow opportunities to present themselves naturally. That way, you’ll experience the sense of freedom and joy that is so good for the body—and the soul!

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