I, like most adults, have placed work as more important and separate from anything resembling play. They are mutually exclusive! However, since I have left the university and have my own non-profit, I have adopted play as a crucial part of my work. Let’s explore the power of play, first with children and then as adults.
The pediatric research literature on childhood play cites that play is crucial for social, emotional and cognitive development. Imaginative “free play,” as opposed to games or structured activities, is the most essential type. “Free play” is critical for becoming socially adept, coping with stress, creativity, and building cognitive skills such as problem solving. The creative aspect is key because it challenges the developing brain more than following predetermined rules does. In free play, kids use their imagination and try out new activities and roles.
Even research with animals shows that their behavior confirms play’s benefits and establishes its evolutionary history in how play provides animals and humans with the important skills that help them survive and reproduce.
Kids and animals that do not play when they are young may grow into anxious, socially maladjusted adults. Work by Brown, et.al, over four decades of research on children’s play has found that a lack of opportunity for unstructured, imaginative “free” play can keep children from growing into happy, well-adjusted adults.
Historically, at least in my childhood, kids did not have the technology of today and learned to play with most anything and each other, call it free play. But today free play may be losing its standing as a staple of youth. According to a paper published in 2005 in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, children’s free-play time dropped by a quarter between 1981 and 1997. Today, parents are more concerned about getting their kids into college and are sacrificing playtime for more structured “learning” activities. Kid’s after-school hours are now being filled with music lessons and sports, in turn reducing time for imaginative free play.
Other studies support Brown’s conviction that the lack of free play in childhood disrupts normal social, emotional and cognitive development in animals and humans. He and other psychologists worry that limiting free play in kids may result in a generation of anxious, unhappy and socially maladjusted adults. But it is never too late to change. Play promotes mental and physical well-being. It facilitates learning and problem solving, and social relationships, especially intimacy with adults.
How do these “free play” activities benefit us? Perhaps most importantly, play appears to help us develop strong social and communication skills, as we learn to keep interactions and behaviors friendly. The research also suggests that play is critical for emotional health, since it helps us work through anxiety and stress. Relieving stress and building social skills may seem to be obvious benefits of play. But research hints at a third, more counter-intuitive area of influence and that is play actually makes us smarter.
Animal researchers believe that play serves as a kind of training for the unexpected. “Play is like a kaleidoscope,” says evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff of the University of Colorado at Boulder, in that it is random and creative. Bekoff maintains that play encourages flexibility and creativity and that is advantageous in the future with unexpected situations or new environments.
For years parents have been told about the importance of play for their children, but what about the importance of play for adults? The National Institute for Play believes that play can dramatically transform our personal health, our relationships, our ability to learn, and the capacity of our corporations to innovate.
How do you play? Our stereotype of aging is that adults, especially older adults, are too old to play. There is actually strong evidence that this could not be further from the truth. Play may be the very thing that keeps you vibrant and healthy. In fact, studies show that a life lived without play is at increased risk for stress related diseases, mental health issues, addiction and interpersonal violence. Play generates optimism, seeks out novelty, makes perseverance fun, leads to mastery, gives the immune system a bounce, fosters empathy and promotes a sense of belonging and community. Each of these play by-products are indices of personal health, and their shortage predicts impending health problems and personal fragility.
Despite the power of play, somewhere between childhood and adulthood, many of us stop playing. We exchange play for work and responsibilities. When we do have some leisure time, we’re more likely to zone out in front of the TV or computer than to engage in creative, brain-stimulating play. By giving ourselves permission to play with the joyful abandon of childhood, we can continue to reap its benefits throughout life.
Instead of looking at play as a waste of precious time, consider it a great investment in your well-being. Play has to be re-framed and seen not as an opposite to work but rather as a component of work. Imagination and creativity through play are like muscles, use them or lose them! What better way of adding life to years than to play.