The True Benefits of Play (for Grown-Ups)

sand castle

Play is essential to every child’s mental stimulation, emotional development, and physical well being. But play for grown-ups is often downplayed as secondary to personal responsibilities and professional obligations. It’s a luxury you get to enjoy only after all your work is done. And sometimes your work is never done. So there’s barely any time left for play.

In our work-obsessed society, lack of play is at the heart of many health-related problems. It can leave us feeling drained, bored, stifled and anxious.

When I became a mom two years ago, my priorities shifted. I made career changes, shed energy drainers, and re-evaluated personal goals. One big change involved starting my own law firm in October 2014. Since then, I’ve had the flexibility and freedom to decide when and where I work.

With the right attitude, careful selection of clientele, and a strong support system, I’ve been able to practice law and do productivity coaching – while indulging in lots of play time with my toddler daughter.

Whether it’s digging in the sandbox, making art, kicking a ball, or going down the slides, play time for kids has positive, lasting effects. Play has significant benefits for grown-ups as well.

Play allows you to fully enjoy the moment. 

One summer afternoon, my kid and I hung out together by building a sand castle. (Well…at age two, she dug up and poured sand randomly, while I built the castle.) When we were done, I couldn’t help but admire my creation. I turned around to reach for my camera, but before I had a chance to snap a photo, she had smashed and kicked down everything flat. She giggled with glee and I spontaneously laughed along with her.

We had played together for the sheer joy and with no end goal in mind. But the adult part of me took over when I decided to try and take a photo of the sand castle for posterity’s sake.

Play is a process and an end in itself. The most joyful kind of play is about the experience; it’s not connected to a larger purpose or a desired result.

Play provides a necessary break from your daily responsibilities and ever-growing list of things to do. 

Play sparks your creativity, nurtures your imagination, and opens you up to different experiences. It adds levity to an overly serious and super busy life. When you have duties and responsibilities to meet, you still need to play. It’s an activity you get to do no matter how many things you have to do.

Because free play has no results to measure, it enables you to let go of the roles and responsibilities you take on in your job and community. During play, the demands you place on yourself are dropped, at least temporarily. Instead of fixating on being productive and practical, you can tap into your intuitive wisdom to just be you.

Play serves as a positive reinforcement for good habits. 

For children, time-outs and taking away privileges are sometimes necessary. But using positive reinforcement encourages the desired behavior to become a more established habit.

Play is one of the main ways to reward and reinforce good habits. If a child has waited patiently and played quietly while the parent makes an important telephone call, the parent can take him out to the park to encourage the same behavior next time.

Getting positive reinforcement (rewards) for practicing a good habit is usually more effective than suffering negative consequences for not practicing it. Although I don’t particularly like learning music theory, it enhances my musicality, creativity and ability to improvise when I do play the piano, which is fun. The promised reward of playing piano pieces I enjoy encourages me to learn the language of music.

Play makes a mundane task more bearable (and even fun to do). 

When my toddler became big enough to get her toys out on her own, she also had the physical capabilities to put them back. While the play part was no problem, the cleaning up part was. She would not put her stuff away until after we started attending a toddler class, where we learned to make clean-up into a game and sang a clean-up song while performing the task. Now she likes tidying up after herself and putting stuff back in their place.

Grown-ups, too, can use play to make mundane tasks more tolerable. You can have a blast doing dreaded tasks if you layer it with something you enjoy. Listen to music, make up your own songs, or dance while you vacuum. Although doing expense reports aren’t exactly fun, you can make this into a game by setting a record time to beat.

Play helps you stay sharp without the pressure of getting things right. 

My toddler loves to stack, sort and string blocks, often building very tall towers. Her creative thinking and motor skills are enhanced by this activity. But she’s not especially interested in creating a sturdy structure that won’t fall down. She loves knocking down the towers she built and starting all over again.

Play allows you to let go of story lines, judgments, criticisms and expectations concerning what you think should happen. The social connections, memory skills and other benefits you gain are just an added bonus; they are not the core reason for play. True play does not involve an emphasis on winning or pressure to perform superbly.

If you’ve forgotten how to play, here are a few ideas: 

  • Blow bubbles
  • Go on a bike ride around your neighborhood or on a scenic trail
  • Sort out and assemble a jigsaw puzzle
  • Create your own songs or play improvised music
  • Throw a frisbee in your backyard or at the park
  • Splash in a puddle
  • Build a snowman or make snow angels
  • Play fetch with your dog
  • Try some adult coloring. (Scottish illustrator Johanna Basford’s Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest are among the most popular adult coloring books.)

Do what you enjoy and what energizes you. When young kids play, they don’t think about how it will make them socially astute, mentally sharp, physically adept or emotionally healthy. A toddler twirls, dances, kicks a ball, and runs for the sheer fun. It’s only until they reach around age 4 they begin to develop a competitive streak. And they become more influenced by societal pressures the older they get. Playing to win is not necessarily a bad thing. But it can make play less playful, which isn’t great.

If you’re a grown-up who has lost your playfulness, start with a fun activity that aligns with your temperament, preference and fitness level. Rediscover how to enjoy simple pleasures. Once play becomes more routine and is not just a guilty pleasure, you can then expand into new territories.

Play is not one more thing you cram into your schedule or do mainly to develop your skills. It’s a voluntary, fun and fluid activity that makes you feel alive in the moment, regardless of the practical and tangible benefits you receive in the long run.


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Photo at Pixaby