In the public mind, play has long been relegated to the confines of childhood. However, a rapidly expanding body of research indicates that this perspective is inaccurate and outdated. In fact, play isn’t just for kids—adults need play, too. It’s an intrinsic human need throughout the lifespan that benefits our bodies and brains, helps us build and maintain healthy relationships, and even enhances our creativity and productivity at work.
Read on to learn about the 10 benefits of play in childhood and adulthood and how to incorporate more play into your life.
What Is Play?
Before diving into a discussion of the benefits of play, it helps to understand what defines play.
It is voluntary, spontaneous, and stress-free. For many people, play also occurs “outside of time and self,” meaning that we become less conscious of time, and of our own bodies and idiosyncrasies, when we play.
Play includes a variety of pursuits as diverse as peekaboo and paintball, stickball on the beach and adult softball leagues, roughhousing and rock climbing. Play can be free and unhindered by rules or structured and codified, such as in the games of soccer and golf.
Play can also be solitary or social—the individual whipping up a new recipe in his kitchen is “playing” just as much as a group of children running around outside playing tag on a beautiful summer day. It takes countless forms that vary depending on an individual’s age, personality, and unique interests.
Think playtime is just for kids? Think again. Check out the top 10 benefits of play and learn how to incorporate a little more irreverence into your life.
Here are just a few examples of play that you or your children likely engage in on a regular basis:
- Roughhousing with pets or children
- Playing make-believe
- Playing organized sports such as soccer, baseball, or basketball
- Engaging in other forms of physical activity such as rock climbing, skiing, surfing, or ultimate Frisbee
- Playing board games
- Going outside and walking in nature
- Engaging in creative expression such as making art, music, gardening, or cooking a meal
- Performing creative, innovative work (yes, work can be play!)
- Engaging in playful banter at your job or a party
- Having a playful relationship with your partner or spouse
Imagine life without these activities. It wouldn’t be much fun, right? Without play, life becomes dull, and we quickly succumb to fatigue and pessimism due to the hectic busyness of our lives. Unfortunately, our society has long devalued play, instead placing emphasis on the importance of constantly engaging in “productive” activities.
Dorothy Sluss, a professor of early childhood education, has gone so far as to state, “We don’t value play in our society. It has become a four-letter word.” (1)
However, if play is truly purposeless, as some scientists have led us to believe, then why has it persisted throughout the animal kingdom and human history, and why does it feel so essential to our well-being? Assessing play from an evolutionary perspective can help us answer this question.
The Evolutionary Origins of Play
Anyone who has ever watched a dog perform a “play bow” with its forelegs extended, rump in the air, and a goofy, expectant look on its face or seen dolphins chasing each other gleefully in the ocean understands that humans are not the only animals who love to play.
Dogs, dolphins, otters, killer whales, bears, and birds all engage in play. In fact, the smarter an animal is, the more it plays. Animals have unique play signals, such as a relaxed open-mouthed expression, that are recognized across species lines and invite others to join in the fun. Observations of animals at play have sparked scientific interest in the origins and utility of play.
The Purpose of Play
Scientists working in this field seek to answer the question, “What is the purpose of play?”
In fact, some scientists have gone so far as to theorize that play has become preventative to human extinction. (2)
Scientists have observed that bears who play the most during adolescence live longer, healthier lives and leave more offspring behind, promoting the continuation of their species. (3) Rats who experience plenty of playtime as youngsters demonstrate enhanced brain growth and neuronal plasticity, processes that contribute to optimal motor control, balance, coordination, and social behavior throughout life. (4, 5)
In humans, playfulness is associated with positive behaviors that enhance survival and quality of life, including:
- Social altruism
- Problem solving
- An increased ability to manage stress
Importantly, play also forges social connections and creates a sense of community and belonging. Play is now considered so crucial for child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child. (6)
What about Video Games and Mobile Games?
The use of electronic media, including video games, cell phones, and iPads, plays a significant role in many children’s lives. Video games have exploded in popularity over the course of the past few decades, with a staggering 99 percent of American boys and 94 percent of American girls playing video games. (7) The amount of time children ages 8 and younger spend glued to screens, including iPads and cell phones, has increased steeply in the past decade, with most spending over two hours per day on screen media. (8) Some might argue that electronic media use constitutes a form of play.
While some studies have shown that playing video games improves coordination and increases social behavior and learning, video games lack the interpersonal nuance and multisensory engagement that characterizes play in the “real world.” (9) Increased time spent playing on electronic devices also decreases time spent engaged in physical activity, outdoors, and building relationships with other children, which are key features of free play.
There are also legitimate concerns about the addictive nature of video games and other forms of electronic media. (10) As such, video games should not be the sole source of play in a child or adult’s life.
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The 10 Benefits of Play
Play has a wide variety of physical, mental, emotional, and social health benefits. Far from being a frivolous, purposeless activity, it’s crucial to the development of our physical bodies and brains and our cognitive, emotional, and social well-being—which is why it’s a core component of ancestral health.
1. It Builds a Healthy Body
Play is essential to the development of a robust, healthy body in childhood.
When kids play, they develop reflexes and learn fine and gross motor skills, flexibility, and balancing skills that will serve them throughout their lives. Outdoor play benefits children’s physical health by exposing them to sunlight, natural environments, and fresh air, which contributes to bone formation and a robust immune system. (11, 12)
By increasing physical activity, play also:
- Builds muscle strength
- Improves heart and lung function
- Helps prevent obesity, diabetes, and high cholesterol
The rates of U.S. children suffering from chronic health conditions, including asthma, obesity, and diabetes, are rapidly rising. This research indicates that increased playtime should be a frontline intervention in our strategy to combat the chronic disease epidemic in children. (13)
2. It Builds a Healthy Brain
Play is an integral part of neurological growth and development in young animals and children. Research indicates that rates of play in mice correlate strongly with the rate of growth of their brains, particularly the cerebellum, a region associated with motor control. This seems to suggest that play performs a crucial role in shaping a mature brain capable of optimizing muscle control.
In mice, play also promotes the secretion of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a protein that mediates the growth, differentiation, and survival of neurons and establishes neuronal connections in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region intrinsically involved with cognition and emotion. (14)
Conversations between adults and children occurring during play also strengthen neuronal connections in brain regions critical for language. (15)
In other words, play is essential for the growth and development of a healthy, fully functional brain. (16) The brain health benefits of play don’t stop with children; in adults, play keeps the brain sharp and reduces stress. These effects may help stave off dementia, which could have a huge impact on the last 10 years of your life. (17)
3. It Teaches Emotional Intelligence and Boosts Self-Esteem
Imagine that you are four years old and building a block tower. Suddenly, another child runs up to your prized tower and knocks it down. What do you do? Tell your teacher? Inform the child that her actions are against the rules? Cry?
Situations such as this frequently occur in unstructured play situations and are crucial for helping children learn how to feel and control and express their emotions. Less verbal children can express their views, experiences, and frustrations through play. The emotional intelligence forged during playtime will help a child navigate social situations and relationships throughout her life.
In addition to creating emotional intelligence, play helps children develop healthy self-esteem. That endows a child with the confidence and resiliency she needs to find her place in the world and face future challenges. (18)
4. Play Builds Healthy Friendships and Romantic Relationships
The ability of play to forge emotional intelligence goes hand in hand with its ability to help children establish peer relationships and make friends. The unstructured nature of free play builds neuronal circuits in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which helps the brain (and child) navigate complex social interactions. (19)
Friendship has a tremendous impact on our well-being. Preschool friendships help children develop social and emotional skills and promote a sense of belonging, while adult friendships provide a strong support network and help reduce stress. (20, 21)
Conversely, a lack of friendship and feelings of social isolation tend to cause depression, chronic health issues, and a shorter lifespan. (22) Adult romantic partners who frequently engage in play experience reduced relational conflict, increased intimacy, and accumulate more “emotional capital,” which refers to collections of positive experiences that can be drawn upon in times of conflict. (23) Play also sparks feelings of excitement in romantic relationships and combats relationship boredom over the long run. (24)
5. It Forges a Healthy Parent–Child Relationship
The developmental trajectory of children is mediated by relationships with parents and caregivers, and one of the primary ways these relationships develop is through play. (25)
When parents play with their children, they are sending the child a simple message: you’re important to me. The undivided attention a parent gives his child during playtime lets a child know that he or she is valued, teaches the parent how to communicate more effectively with the child, and affords the opportunity for parents to offer nurturing, gentle guidance. Play can serve as a cornerstone in the foundation of a healthy, enduring parent–child relationship.
6. It Teaches Cooperation
When children engage in free play, they gain critical knowledge about how to cooperate with others. (26) Rather than relying on rules and regulations to govern their experiences, they must work together with their peers to create and achieve mutual goals. That cooperation may involve sharing, negotiating, and resolving conflicts. (27)
The ability to cooperate with others, a skill learned through play, helps individuals navigate interpersonal interactions throughout their lives in school, work, and family settings.
7. Play Teaches Problem Solving
In children, free play encourages the development of a concept called divergent thinking, which refers to the ability to generate ideas by exploring many possible solutions. (28) Convergent problem solving, on the other hand, involves solving a problem that has a single solution.
While convergent problem solving is emphasized in the classroom and on conventional intelligence tests, divergent problem solving is linked to creativity and is more applicable to the complex, nuanced world we live in. The ability to problem solve divergently, developed through the process of play, may help a child navigate the “real world,” as opposed to merely encouraging good performance on standardized tests.
8. It Stimulates Creativity
Many people consider creativity to be a special skill only possessed by a few fortunate individuals, such as artists and musicians. However, the truth is that all humans can be creative, and play is one method we can use to stimulate our innate creativity.
The ability to be creative serves as a healthy outlet for children to express their emotions and reflect on their experiences. (29) In adults, play can water the seeds of creativity that may have been dormant since childhood. This may foster success at work, as they expand their ability to think “outside the box.” Enhanced creativity may also help adults better manage the stress and emotions drummed up in day-to-day life.
9. It Improves Work Outcomes
Imagine having the opportunity to play a pickup game of soccer over your lunch break, or the freedom to take 30 minutes out of your workday to dabble on an instrument or build a Lego structure at a designated “play” area in your company’s corporate office. For many adults, this situation sounds like a fantasy; for others, it is a reality.
A growing number of organizations, including Facebook and LinkedIn, are embracing the idea of play at work because it can have beneficial effects on a variety of work outcomes. (30)
For example, research has found that play at work:
- Enhances job satisfaction
- Increases creativity
- Relieves boredom in a monotonous job
- Enhances employees’ ability to deal with work-related stress (31, 32, 33, 34)
Psychologist Dr. Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute of Play, has personally observed the positive effects of play on work performance:
When employees have the opportunity to play, they actually increase their productivity, engagement, and morale … Not only does having a playful atmosphere attract young talent, but experts say play at work can boost creativity and productivity in people of all ages. (35)
Based on these studies and observations, office “playtime” may soon become the new-and-improved 21st-century version of the “water cooler break”!
10. It Reduces Stress and Builds Resilience
Unfortunately, modern-day life is fraught with psychological stress, and it can quickly overwhelm us if we fail to engage in stress-reduction activities.
While contemplative practices such as meditation have their place in stress management, play serves a crucial but underappreciated role as a buffer that dampens the impact of daily stressors on health and modulates our interpretations and reactions to stressful events. (36)
Studies on the benefits of play and its impact on stress have revealed some profound findings. A study comprising nearly 1,000 students recruited from three universities found that those students who described themselves as more playful reported lower levels of perceived stress than their less-playful counterparts. The “playful” students also demonstrated better coping strategies in stressful situations and were less likely to engage in negative behaviors commonly triggered by stress. (37)
A study of older women involved in the Red Hat Society—“a playgroup for women created to connect like-minded women, make new friends and enrich lives through the power of fun and friendship”—also found that playfulness fostered resilience. It enabled the women to be more flexible in the face of adversity and bounce back quickly from difficult conditions. (38, 39)
Play is a hallmark of the human species and a strong predictor of our health and well-being. Play creates the optimal developmental milieu to prepare children physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially for the experiences and challenges of life. In adults, it nurtures faculties that may have been lost over time, such as creativity and emotional expression, while:
- Bolstering brain health
- Facilitating productivity at work
- Decreasing the health risks associated with isolation, loneliness, and chronic stress
While researchers have taken a keen interest in the abundant health benefits of play, many have also observed and come to understand the profound health consequences of a lack of play, referred to as “play deprivation.” Just as play is an index of health, play deprivation is a strong predictor of numerous adverse health outcomes.
The Harmful Effects of Play Deprivation
Whereas abundant play enhances survival and quality of life, a lack of play has serious repercussions for physical, mental, and emotional health. “Play deprivation” is a term used to describe the adverse developmental, emotional, and social repercussions of a lack of play.
Unfortunately, our hurried lifestyles, declines in recess time at school, and an increased emphasis on academic achievement and high-stakes athletic activities for children leave kids with little time for idle, creative, unstructured play. This observation is backed up by alarming statistics: A recent survey found that the average kindergarten offers far less free play time than is recommended for optimal child development, and another survey found that the number of schools with at least one recess period decreased by nearly 30 percent between 1989 and 1999. (40, 41)
In the pursuit of higher academic scores, athletic achievement, and other “enrichment” activities, play deprivation is becoming commonplace, even accepted, in our society. But what are the consequences of play deprivation for our children?
What Happens When Kids Don’t Get Enough Time to Play
The consequences of inadequate playtime are profound. Children who are deprived of quality playtime experience decreases in brain and muscle development, reduced social skills, and impaired problem-solving abilities and are more likely to become violent and antisocial. (42) Play-deprived children also experience a loss of sensory stimulation that causes withdrawal and decreased brain activity and are at an increased risk of anxiety, depression, and obesity.
Could the answer to rising rates of childhood obesity, anxiety, depression, and falling scores in science and math be a “prescription” for more play? The answer appears to be a resounding “yes!” In fact, adding extra recess time to children’s school schedules has been found to improve academic skills, classroom behavior, and adjustment to school life, among the many other cognitive, emotional, and social processes mentioned above. (43)
Play Deprivation Matters for Adults, Too
Play deprivation also has serious consequences for adults. Psychiatrist Stuart Brown has noted that adults who have “forgotten how to play” have narrow, rigid thinking and a decreased ability to handle stress. (44) In his own clinical practice, Dr. Brown has found that playless adult lives are also associated with controlling behavior, over-ambition, envy, and in some cases, emotional breakdown. (45)
How to Incorporate More Play into Your Life
Play is an essential component of a healthy lifestyle. While some individuals have a natural predisposition toward fun, anyone can learn how to become more playful, given some time, effort, and a few helpful tips. (46, 47) With the importance of play in mind, here are some tips for encouraging more play in your life.
Choose Activities You Loved as a Child
What was your favorite childhood game? Perhaps it was climbing trees or playing stickball in the yard with your neighborhood friends. Make a list, get creative, and see how you can incorporate these activities into your current adult life. Instead of climbing trees, you could give rock climbing a go, and an adult softball league could be a great way to get back to your stickball-playing roots.
Pick Activities That Bring You Joy
What activities spark a fire in you? Make a list and keep it in a place where you’ll see it every day. Try to engage in play activities at least several days of the week, if not every day!
Keep in mind that play can be fun, but also absorbing, challenging, and demanding. To this end, activities like working on your car, undertaking a DIY project in your home, or planting a garden can be considered play, as long as you’re having fun along the way.
Create Opportunities for Play
If you look for chances to play, you’ll find that they are everywhere. Go on a walk in the woods, have a board game night, throw a stick for your dogs, or build a fort with your kids—the possibilities are endless.
Embrace “Beginner’s Mind”
In Zen practice, the term “beginner’s mind” refers to an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject. This state of mind is an excellent one to cultivate for play. A beginner’s mind can help you let go of self-consciousness and concern about being awkward or unskilled, which is a legitimate fear for many adults who are unfamiliar with play.
Make Play a Priority
Schedule time for play just as you would schedule time for other activities in your life, such as going to your job and working out. Given the health benefits of play, it deserves some dedicated time in your life!
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Not mentioned by Chris is taking part the arts. Playing or singing in an amateur group can be intellectually stimulating and also very companionable. Similarly, drawing or painting with others and discussing one’s depiction of a model or landscape. Amateur dramatics, acting or being involved in the production, is an obvious way of playing for both children and adults. I think I was extermely lucky as a child to have all these stimuli at school and my music mistress sent me to my first singing teacher: I’m as grateful to her as anyone!