Modern society tends to view play as an expendable activity that takes time away from more “important” and productive things. If you doodle on a pad at work, you’re wasting time! Everyone knows you should be focusing on answering emails or writing reports… Right?
It’s pretty clear this mindset isn’t working out for us very well. The chronic demands of daily life take an increasingly bigger toll, with stress making more of us sick. Anxiety, mood disorders, depression, ADHD, and other mental health conditions now affect 1 in 6 adults (1). Faced with this epidemic, science is now beginning to acknowledge the importance of play to our well-being.
Numerous studies from neuroscience, biology, psychology, and social science show the transformative aspects of play to our health. In fact, it may be the most important work we do. You could even make a strong argument that it is critical to our survival, both as individuals and as a species. Play is a biological drive, as integral to our health as sleep or nutrition. (2)
What is play?
Any activity engaged in purely for fun and enjoyment. It is voluntary, spontaneous, and without stress or obligation. It tends to be all-consuming and may occur outside a sense of time and self. It can be social or solitary; free of rules, or structured as in organized sports. (3)
Humans evolved to play
Our society has long devalued play in favor of more productive pursuits. However, if it is truly purposeless, then why do so many animals do it? Why would lions waste their time and make themselves vulnerable by roughhousing with each other? Why do dolphins dive and splash when they could be doing more important things like finding food?
If playing wasn’t critical to biological function, it would have been selected out of the gene pool long ago. Yet it is a feature of many species of animals. The smarter the animal, the more important playing is to its development. Play is a fundamental developmental process, evolved in many species to promote survival. (4)
Why do animals play?
Playing shapes the brain and makes animals smarter and more adaptable. It fosters empathy and makes complex social groups possible. It establishes creativity and innovation. Bears, birds, dogs, and dolphins engage in playing, but of all animal species, humans engage in it the most. (5)
Studies across species show that playing enhances health and improves the ability of animals to survive and reproduce. (6,7) In humans, playing is associated with many positive effects on health outcomes, including social cooperation, optimism, flexibility, creativity, empathy, critical thinking, and stress management. (8)
Play is critically important to human development. It is now considered so crucial to child growth it has been recognised by the UN High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child. (9)
Benefits of Play
Research is expanding on the importance of playing for both adults and children. There are positive effects for many aspects of health – physical, mental, social, and emotional. Important benefits include:
- Improved physical health
- It builds strength, motor skills, balance, flexibility, and immunity;
- Better brain function
- It promotes brain growth in children and adults, drives formation of new neural connections and brain matter, and prevents dementia; (10)
- Greater emotional intelligence and self-esteem
- It allows us to practice controlling and expressing emotions, and builds confidence;
- Enhanced problem solving and creativity
- It develops divergent thinking, which is the ability to explore many possible solutions to a problem; (11)
- Healthier relationships
- It improves cooperation, negotiation, and conflict resolution skills; (12)
- Increased productivity
- Studies show play drives motivation and productivity at work; (13)
- Less stress and more resilience
- Studies show the more play people engage in, the less stressed they are, the better coping strategies they have, and the less likely they are to participate in self-destructive behaviors to cope with stress (14)
A lack of play adversely affects our physical, mental, and emotional health. When kids are deprived of play the effects are profound. The lack of sensory stimulation results in decreased brain and muscle development, reduced social skills, impaired problem solving, and a greater risk of becoming violent and anti-social. This isn’t just a problem for at-risk populations. All kids are at risk as recess times are steadily reduced, and free time is more scheduled than ever. Adults deprived of play become more rigid in their thinking and are more prone to mental disorders like depression, anxiety, addiction, and violence. (15).
How to Play More
Just small amounts of play can actually make you and your children more productive than if you were to continue working right through. It may seem silly to be prescriptive about something that is supposed to be spontaneous and free flowing, but the American Academy of Pediatrics is now advocating that doctors should be prescribing play for young children (16). So it seems that both adults and children in our society are out of practice; here are some ideas for how to incorporate more play into your life.
First, consider the things you loved to do as a child. Maybe you loved to climb trees, or get lost in art projects. What brings you joy? Those things will give you clues as you begin thinking about this as an adult. Here are a few ideas, some that you might already be doing!
- Playing board games (Scrabble, anyone?)
- Outdoor activities like climbing or hiking
- Working on your car or other DIY projects, as long as you enjoy it!
- Playing with pets or children (try wrestling or a pillow fight!)
- Creative expression such as art, music, or cooking
- Craft work like knitting or building something by hand
- Narrative play like reading books, theater, acting
With all these benefits in mind, it’s worth making time in your schedule to be free and, well, unscheduled. Consider playing time as important as the time you spend in the gym (17) or at work. It’s not frivolous; it’s necessary and critical to your health!
Do you make time in your life for play? What are your favorite activities?