As a little girl, I loved to play games. I still do. Long hours were spent playing Monopoly or other boardgames. At the weekly family game night we took turns planning the special snack to serve with the evening’s selected game and in the summer, after dinner, we and our neighbors would spend the evening until dark playing croquet. “Playing” was such an important part of my life. Now as an adult, I realize that it gave me an opportunity to see people differently, away from their normal, everyday roles.
What memories do you recall from your early play experiences? What do you enjoy today? Most of us would agree that playing is critical to the growth of our children. However, what we sometimes forget is how important play is for adults as well, no matter our age. As George Bernard Shaw reminds us, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
So, what are the benefits of play?
“What all play has in common,” says psychiatrist Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, “is that it offers a sense of engagement and pleasure, takes the player out of a sense of time and place, and the experience of doing it is more important than the outcome.”
And, according to Lynn Barnett, a professor of sports, recreation and tourism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, we play because it is therapeutic. Research suggests that at work, play has been found to speed up learning, enhance productivity, and increase job satisfaction. At home, playing together, like going to a movie or a concert, can enhance bonding and communication.
Playful adults have the ability to transform everyday situations, even stressful ones, into something entertaining, Barnett states. The study she co-authored found highly playful young adults—those who rated themselves high on personality characteristics such as being spontaneous or energetic, or open to “clowning around”—reported less stress in their lives and possessed better coping skills. “Although highly playful adults feel the same stressors as anyone else, they appear to experience and react to them differently, allowing them to roll off more easily than those who are less playful,” she says.
Unfortunately, too many people stop playing between childhood and adulthood. In their recent article on the benefits of play from Help Guide, authors Lawrence Robinson, Melinda Smith, Jeanne Segal, and Jennifer Gurbin tell us that play is a source of relaxation and stimulation, fuels imagination, creativity, problem-solving abilities, and emotional well-being. It also relieves stress, enhances brain function, stimulates the mind, improves relationships and connection to others, and keeps us feeling young and energetic.
As we emerge from the pandemic and are able to spend more time with others, what are you looking forward to doing? Will you come play with me?
Linda Henry writes regularly on topics related to aging, health care, and communication, and is the co-author of several books, including Transformational Eldercare from the Inside Out: Strengths-Based Strategies for Caring. She conducts workshops nationally on aging and creating caring work environments. Her volunteer emphasis is age-friendly communities.