The benefits of play for adults

Most parents know about the importance of play for their children to develop essential life skills. But did you know about the importance of play for grown-ups, too?

When you think of the word play, you probably imagine a group of children running around, chasing a colorful ball as they laugh and cheer. But play is so much more than that, and it’s not restricted to a certain age group. Play can be defined simply as engaging in activity for pure enjoyment and recreation.

Play is for everyone, regardless of age (or profession)

Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron admitted to playing Angry Birds on his phone as a way to decompress after a long day. Soccer star David Beckham credited Lego toys for saving his life, saying that they served as therapy for a brain injury he sustained after a jet crash. Barack Obama said he enjoyed playing basketball or golf as a way to relax.

The best thing about play, besides the fact that it’s something you enjoy, is that while you’re doing it, it’s benefiting your overall wellbeing and impacting your health. It can fuel your creativity, emotional wellbeing and ability to problem solve.

It’s part of evolution, but it’s also healthy

During one of his TED talks, Peter Gray, research professor of psychology at Boston College, said, “from a biological evolutionary perspective, play is nature’s means of ensuring that young mammals, including young human beings, acquire the skills that they need to acquire to develop successfully into adulthood.” And more research is revealing that the benefits of play for adults are myriad:  

  • It’s good for your stress levels. Play can trigger the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. These promote an overall sense of wellbeing and can temporarily relieve pain.
  • It improves your brain function. Playing games that challenge the brain – such as chess and puzzles – can help prevent memory problems and improve brain function. This can also help ward off depression.
  • It stimulates your mind and boosts activity. And, it makes you more productive. More companies – like Google – have set up play stations and encourage employees to play and collaborate. This, in turn, helps foster team building and cooperation within the company. It’s a win-win situation.
  • It improves your relationships. Laughing and having fun with others can foster empathy, compassion, trust and intimacy. Developing a playful nature can help you loosen up in stressful situations, break the ice with strangers and make new friends.

As Dr. Gray puts it, play is by definition creative and innovative. It is an outlet where we, as human beings, can experience joy, learn to get along with peers, practice empathy and get over narcissism while improving our health.

Learn more about the J. Kent McNew Family Medical Center, a 16-bed mental health hospital for adults opening in March.

“It’s the getaway to vitality”

Play is the gateway to vitality according to the National Institute for Play (NIFP). Play is uniquely “rewarding, it generates optimism, seeks out novelty, makes perseverance fun, leads to mastery, gives the immune system a bounce and fosters empathy.” Play is also powerful in creating a sense of community.

For example, some treatment centers for drug or alcohol abuse turn to outdoor recreation and play as a vital part of their recovery programs. It’s a way to spark an individual’s interest in sober activities. Adventure therapy, for instance, requires individuals to engage in outdoor activities while working with others to problem solve and overcome challenges as a team. 

And although it’s part of therapy, it’s also a form of play that is helping individuals work on their addiction while having fun. The benefits of outdoor recreation include increased attention span, improved relaxation, decreased anxiety, reduced blood pressure and decreased risk of depression. 

Adventure therapy is just a term used to describe what’s known as experiential education. Play is no different. You can learn life skills and improve your health while playing. And just as children turn to play when they want to distress – or just enjoy their time – play can help you be the best versions of yourself when facing “adult problems,” like career stress, parenting, marriage and the many other responsibilities that come with age. Don’t think of play as a waste of time or as an activity that’s only for children. Instead, consider it an investment in your overall mental and physical wellbeing.

Let's play

Need a few ideas for fun play?  

  • Pick a hobby and make time for it. Make some time to do the things that you enjoy the most. Make sure you find joy in the process of that hobby and don’t just focus on the end product.
  • Do something fun with others. Doing fun things with others is key when it comes to playfulness. Whether it’s playing with others, participating in a specific activity or just going out for coffee to catch up, consider spending some time with someone else.
  • Play games. You can always create your own game with those around you, with or without the use of a device. Try racing someone up a hill, walking faster than them until you reach the end of the street or go outside and play ball.
  • Visit a park or a playground. Go out in nature and have some fun. This not only boosts your mood, but it can also be a fun way to socialize. When was the last time you got on a swing? Try it! It’s so much fun.
  • Be present. Playful people are those who take the time to appreciate beauty in the world. Practice mindfulness and pick a flower, step on the leaves and laugh as they crunch, feel the cool breeze against your face on a breezy day or go jump in that puddle of water that accumulated after the last rainstorm. Enjoy the process, just as much as you would if you were a child again.

Mark Sakraida is the adventure therapy coordinator at Pathways, AAMC’s substance use and co-occurring disorder treatment facility.