The Importance of Play to Our Social and Mental Health
“There’s a clear relationship between play and how much joy and fulfillment people experience in their lives,” states Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. “It’s a health issue, as important as exercise or taking vitamins.”2
Dr. Patch Adams3 also subscribes to the health benefits of play. Physician and clown, he travels the world spreading love and healing through treatment which includes clown performances. He visits war zones, refugee camps and natural disaster sites—places where play would be the last thing on people’s minds. His play has positively affected the lives and health of people in more than sixty countries.
What Kind of Play Do We Need?
Somebody told us, in our early adulthood, to act our age. Perhaps we thought it meant that adults do not play. However, sometimes when we feel frustrated and not sure why, or when we are tired but cannot sleep, play could be what we need to improve our well-being.
Here are some of the characteristics of the kind of play the experts4 recommend:
Not an obligation
We are not obligated to do it. We are not trying to fulfill a commitment. We abandon the seriousness with which we approach work and accommodate our childlike, playful side.
Solely for enjoyment
We do not have to win in a game with other people. We do not have to burn any calories if it’s a physical activity. We simply enjoy the moment.
Engaging (without taxing) the mind or body—or both
It requires conscious thought or action—not like staring at the television screen without following the movie plot, not pushing the swing without noticing the child’s responses.
Helps us lose track of time
That is because we are having so much fun, we neglect to look at the clock. We do not rush to get to the end of play.
Takes away self-consciousness
We are not afraid to laugh, or scream. There is no need for any pretentious airs to impress. We are comfortable with ourselves and that makes our playmates comfortable with us.
This list of characteristics does not require us to check off each one when deciding to play. It simply suggests an awareness and an approach that will help us enjoy our play.
With Whom Do We Play?
You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation. ― Plato
One important aspect of play is that it builds relationships; we get to see different character aspects of the people we play with, and we learn more about them. What games we play depend on with whom we play. Here are some easy choices:
Play with a child.
Most adult-child interactions require the adult to teach communication skills, social skills and anything that helps their healthy development. However, there are many opportunities for intentional play and the child incidentally learns cooperation and creativity. For example:
- Build Lego blocks and color with crayons together.
- Build jigsaw puzzles.
- Keep the ball bouncing for as long as you can.
- Put on imaginary wings and fly.
As the child grows, the games change with opportunities for different kinds of play: shoot hoops, jump rope, play board games.
Play with our mate.
Chances are, mates were both very playful when they first fell in love. True, life is busier now, but they both need some relaxation time. Bring back the early memories and strengthen the relationship by playing some of the games they used to play. Playing together enhances the sense of growing together.
Play with our co-workers.
At Googleplex in Mountain View, California, employers understand the importance of play to relieve stress during the workday. There are swimming pools; ping pong, billiard and foosball tables; video games; and like several other play-provider companies, a gym full of equipment.
Google employers even get to play in the restrooms with codes and puzzles provided above the urinals and on the doors of the restroom stalls.
We do not always need partners for play. When we feel burnt out, play can help us relax. When we feel stuck, it can tap our creativity. In our space, there are more opportunities for play than we realize.
- Draw or paint a smiley face, a house, a pet. Use the child’s crayon. It does not have to be perfect and it may become a conversation piece, later.
- Play some upbeat music and dance with or without rhythm—like nobody’s watching.
- Pretend to be someone you admire and imitate his or her gestures before the mirror.
- Dress up your pet and take pictures.
- Just start playing, and more creative ideas will come.
Summary Benefits of Play
HelpGuide.org5recommends that play is better with, at least, one other person; and that we avoid the sensory overload of electronic gadgets. They summarize the benefits of play to our well-being in five points:
Play relieves stress.
The fun triggers the release of endorphins, which makes us feel good and provides an overall sense of well-being.
It improves brain function.
Puzzles and other games like chess can improve brain function and prevent memory problems. The social interaction also keeps stress and depression at bay.
It boosts creativity.
Play stimulates the imagination, and makes us better at adapting and problem solving.
It improves relationships.
People who play together become friendly. They loosen up, and often, share their stories and emotions. They laugh, develop trust and enjoy each other’s company.
It keeps us feeling young.
It boosts our energy and vitality, improves our resistance to disease, and makes us feel better.
All work and no play makes Jack an old man. Let's not grow old for lack of play!
So, how are you likely to respond if someone asks you about your play schedule?
1. Hall, G.Stanley: The Quote Yard (George Bernard Shaw, Benjamin Franklin and Oliver Wendell Holmes, all receive credit for the quote; it is not certain which one is the owner.)
2, 4. Bertsos, Magrita: Eat, Play, Love; Redbook, Hearst Publishing Vol.219 No 2, August 2012
3. Adams, Patch: Patch Adams M.D. and Gesundheit! Institute, Me: A Short Biography, (visited 06/01/2014)
5. Robinson, Lawrence et al: HelpGuide: Why Play Matters for Adults, (April 2014)