Why Play is Beneficial for Children and Adults

Most people tend to think that play is confined primarily to childhood. Play was certainly an essential part of my early years. When my mother was serving up the dinner someone would have to go and find me. I was often outdoors, playing cricket in the driveway, kicking the football on the road, or throwing a golf ball against the front fence.

Play is beneficial to children, allowing them to develop their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive and emotional strength.

Play allows children to explore new things at their own pace, master physical agility, learn new skills and figure things out in their own way.

Play is how children learn to socialise, to think, to solve problems, to mature and most importantly, to have fun.

Play builds active, healthy bodies.

And yet there has been a dramatic decline in children’s play over recent decades. The pace of modern living, the availability of passive entertainment, and the disturbing threats to personal safety are some of the reasons children experience ‘play deprivation’.

Psychologist and play advocate Peter Gray links the dramatic decline in children’s play with the marked increase in anxiety, depression, feelings of helplessness, suicide and narcissism in children and adolescents.

Play is pivotal for children’s development, health and well-being. But these benefits are equally important for adults. The urge to play is embedded within all humans. We are uniquely designed to enjoy and take part in play throughout all of life.

Yet our society tends to dismiss play for adults. Play is seen as unproductive and petty, a non-essential for the modern, sophisticated twenty-first-century high-achiever. It is considered immature, indulgent and a waste of time.

Play is difficult to define. According to Scott G. Eberle, PhD, editor of the American Journal of Play, ‘Play is a process, not a thing.’

Dr Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play says, ‘Play is a state of being – purposeless, fun and pleasurable.’

He attributes the following characteristics to play

something is done for its own sake

a voluntary activity

an activity with an inherent attraction for the player

the player loses track of time and perhaps loses track of his or her self

involves improvisation

leaves the player wanting to do more

The movie, ‘You’ve Got Mail’, staring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan provides some examples of adult play. The movie premiered twenty years ago and is about two people who own competing bookstores. Kathleen Kelly owns ‘The Shop Around the Corner’, a small children’s bookstore. Joe Fox owns a chain of megastores called ‘Foxbooks.’

There are two scenes which capture the essence of adult play. One involves Joe Fox, striding through Riverside Park with his golden retriever. He comes to a curve in the path, which leads on to a street garden nearby, and we hear him calling out, ‘Brinkley, Brinkley, Brinkley.’ The other involves Kathleen Kelly. She recalls an experience she shared with her mother. The bookshop is closed and mother and daughter are dancing or ‘twirling’, as she describes it.

Play is walking and dancing and myriad other diverse activities. Play is self-controlled and self-directed, bringing immeasurable pleasure and meaning.

When play is lost or missing, there are serious consequences individually and culturally. Studies reveal that prolonged sustained play deprivation has major dire consequences for human competency and well-being.

Play is important for our mental health.

In our busy, modern, technology filled world, play acts as a stabiliser of positive mood and brings a sense of balance to life. Play is like a pressure relief valve, providing protection from the build-up of stress.

Play is an important source of relaxation and stimulation. A little bit of play can go a long way toward boosting productivity and happiness.

Play helps us connect. We become part of communities, large and small. And belonging helps us avoid feeling lonely, isolated and victimised.

As Dr Stuart Brown says,

Play lights up your brain, improves your mood and connects you to the world.

Dr Stuart Brown

By ignoring the importance of play in our adult life we place ourselves at risk.

As Dr Brown says,

A life devoid of play faces major health risks, such as depression, a decreased immune system, and stress-related diseases.

Dr Stuart Brown

People who are suicidal have lost their desire for play. They often reject the activities that brought them meaning and relinquish the things that brought them joy. Life ways heavily and they feel trapped, locked in a prison of despair with no obvious way out. Regretfully, people who lose hope disengage from the people who can help, the people committed to their well-being. They are often family members and friends who genuinely care and want to show their support, dispensing love and even laughter.

Play is an important function of a normal and happy life. It is as important as sleep and, like sleep, many of us aren’t getting enough of it.

Give yourself permission to play, every day.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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