All work and no play really do make Jack a dull boy — and a dull man besides. Psychologists have long emphasized the importance of child’s play in brain development. But now, research suggests that grown-ups need their playtime, too.
What does that mean, exactly? Scholars don’t agree on a definition of play. But in general, it involves any activity freely chosen for the joy of it, rather than for an extrinsic reward like money. When we think of play, social activities like basketball or Scrabble might first to come to mind, but play can be solitary, too. Even gardening and knitting can count. Some consider daydreaming play, too, a sort of “default state for the idling mind,” says Scott Eberle, editor of The American Journal of Play.
The activity doesn’t matter as much as your mindset, like thinking “Wow, I’m in control, I can color outside the lines. I can be something I’m normally not,” says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, director of the Infant Language Laboratory at Temple University. “The same thing can be work or play depending on how you approach it.” Take Mary Poppins, the beloved fictional nanny who turned chores into a song-singing game. At the other end, there are gambling addicts who turn simple poker games into a nerve-wracking compulsion.
Researchers trace the surge in interest in adult play to Silicon Valley, which has long recognized the role of a playful office environment — complete with quirky art and ping-pong tables — in boosting innovation and productivity. That philosophy has trickled down to other industries, as companies increasingly expect creativity from employees at all levels.
Hirsh-Pasek also sees the rise in play-friendly workplaces as a “natural reaction” to an overworked, always-on generation. “People feel more stressed than ever,” she says. To manage that stress while working long hours, we need to bring some fun to the office.
Evidence suggests that play provides adults some of the same health benefits as it does for children. Here are a few:
- It keeps your mind sharp. Crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and other fun brain-teasers can slow cognitive decline and possibly ward off Alzheimer’s disease. Stretching yourself to think outside the box also forges and strengthens neural connections, improving brain function.
- It improves overall well-being. Play relieves stress, a risk factor for heart disease, depression, and other health problems. Through helping us realize our fun, creative side, play can even improve self-esteem, says psychologist David Elkin, author of The Power of Play.
- It boosts creativity and problem-solving skills. Research has shown that adults, like kids, often solve problems best while in a relaxed, playful mood. A Cornell University study, for example, found that giving doctors candy [DB2] made them more likely to correctly make a tricky diagnosis. “That makes sense,” says Peter Gray, a psychology professor at Boston College. “Play helps us see problems in a new light. A broomstick can be a horse. Anything can be anything.”
- It can strengthen relationships. Playing helps children learn how to share, compromise, and take turns — social skills we often still need to refine as adults. A playful attitude can break the ice, building intimacy and trust. Teasing, for example, points out a person’s flaws “in a way…that doesn’t say ‘I hate you because of this,’ but more, ‘I love you, even though you have this annoying characteristic,’” while keeping the receiving party humble, says Gray. The creativity that play nurtures can also help with resolving conflicts by opening us to different sides of people and situations.
- It can improve work performance. Stepping away for a ping-pong break can get your blood flowing and help you return to a task with fresh eyes, boosting innovation and productivity. “If you…know that you’ll be safe even if you fail, then it’s so freeing that you probably even generate more,” Hirsh-Pasek says.
Simple Ways to Make Life More Playful
Between work, family, and social obligations, trying to squeeze in some playtime might seem like no fun at all. Here are some ideas for everyday play:
- Turn the mundane into a game: “You can make a game out of anything,” Hirsh-Pasek says. Leap over the cracks in the sidewalk. Or try to guess which elevator will arrive first. Next time you eat out, order dessert first, Eberle suggests. On your next jog, try hopping, skipping, and jumping, too. If you bike, race someone who doesn’t realize you’re racing her.
- Play with your commute. Instead of fiddling with your phone, use time on a bus or train to read, knit, write, or sketch. The time will fly, and you’ll feel refreshed when you get off at your stop.
- Take a daydream break: Take five to close your eyes and daydream, suggests Lisabeth DiLalla, a clinical psychology professor at Southern Illinois University. Or gaze out the window, and look for shapes in the clouds. “It’s very restful…and yet the creative component is important for the brain.” Lunch and coffee breaks can be good times for this.
- Play with your kids. Besides helping their development, quality playtime with your children strengthens your bond with them. It also offers a few refreshing minutes of seeing the world through their eyes. To keep it fun for grownups, try to strike a balance between your interests and your child’s.
- Host a game night. On one or two nights a week, invite friends over for charades or board games. The cardinal rule? TV and phones must stay off. Or sign up for playful Facebook or Meetup groups, whose activities span everything from coloring over coffee to “Settlers of Catan” pizza nights.
- Put time on the calendar. If you have a hobby you love but never seem to find time for, declare a block of time for it. Some ideas: Sign up for a class or studio time, join a rec league sports or choir, or volunteer to help an art program at a senior center, hospital, or museum.
The Benefits of Play for Adults: How Play Can Improve Your Health, Work, and Family Relationships. HelpGuide.org. [Link]
Stuart Brown, MD. Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. New York: Avery, a member of Penguin Group; 2010.
Isen, Alice. Influence of Positive Affect on Decision Making in Complex Situations: Theoretical Issues With Practical Implications. Journal of Consumer Psychology. 2001. [Link]
Alzheimer’s Association. Stay Mentally Active. Alz.org.