The Healing Power of Play

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The Healing Power of Play

When was the last time you allowed yourself to play? Not just a laugh or two but in a way that made you laugh so hard that it actually made your sides ache? And filled you with joy and the visceral feeling of being fully alive?

As a child you hopefully spent a lot of your time playing. But if you’re like most adults, your responsibilities take up the majority of your time, leaving little time left for play. The art of play is an important one, however, because play has many benefits to the body, mind and spirit. For one, playing allows us to deepen our connection with ourselves and with each other.

Take a moment now to close your eyes and recall your earliest most playful and joyful memory. Don’t think about it too much, simply allow this memory to present itself in your awareness. Where were you and what were you doing?

This memory is the foundation for reconnecting to play as an adult. It can be so easy get swept up in the commitments of adult life: work, financial responsibilities, family responsibilities, errands, chores and more. Oftentimes as we grow older, playfulness is socialized out of us and replaced with a never ending list of responsibilities and achievement-oriented goals.

But playtime is equally as important for adults as it is for children. Spontaneous, adventurous, fun, stress-free playtime, where you engage in the kind of activities that don’t have a “point” or end goal necessarily, other than your pleasure and enjoyment.

The Health Benefits of Play

As counterintuitive as it may seem, there are many emotional and physical health benefits of play. It’s not simply a luxury that we can easily do without. In fact, research done by Marian Diamond shows that play has an essential role in brain development.

And Dr. Stuart Brown, a well-known expert on play, says that play is the vital essence of life. His research actually shows that there is a ripple effect of play in our lives. Meaning that when we make the time to play, the benefits extend out into every area of our lives, making us more productive and happier in everything we do.

According to the Greater Good, play is essential to leading a happy and healthy life. And research shows that people who exhibit high levels of playfulness, appear to be better at dealing with stress, are more likely to lead active lifestyles and be more creative.

So not only does spontaneous and lighthearted play decrease stress, it increases positive emotions, improves brain function, boosts the immune system and enhances our bonds with friends and family.

And most of the time, play encourages laughter and humor, two things that also have a positive impact on our physical and mental health.

According to research, laughter can increase blood flow and strengthen the heart. It also helps to relieve tension and stress by releasing dopamine in our brains when we find something funny.

So when you look at playfulness in this way, it’s actually productive. 

It may seem strange at first glance to consider play “productive,” as we usually disregard and ignore it in order to do something else that we’d consider more important in our adult lives.

No matter how busy you are, it’s important to make time for play. Even a few hours a week can be incredibly beneficial to your health, happiness and relationships.

If you find that it is hard to make time for play, it can be helpful to schedule time in for it and then treat this time just as you would any other appointment. This makes it more real and increases the likelihood of actually doing it.

Once you do this a few times, it will likely become self-reinforcing as you experience these benefits first hand, and then you may not need to be so scheduled with it!

How to incorporate more play into your life:

One of the most important things about incorporating playfulness into your life is to not overthink it. 

It’s a time to be joyful, unstructured and creative. It’s a time to forget about other responsibilities and commitments. It’s a time where you can enjoy the present moment, rather than be focused on an end goal or specific outcome.

Give yourself permission to simply have fun and play with that creative, spontaneous abandon of childhood. Deep belly laughter and squeals of joy are a must!

Build upon the memory you came up with earlier by thinking of the activities you did when you were younger…take a moment to really reconnect with your inner child. What were some of the ways you used to love to play? And what are some new ideas for fun activities to try?

One quick note, some people may actually come up with a blank here. If you had a difficult childhood, you may not have had the opportunity to play very much. If you find yourself in this situation, “reconnecting” to play may even feel anxiety producing because there may not be much to “reconnect” with. In this case, you’ll have the opportunity to learn how to play, possibly for the first time.

If this is your starting point, remind yourself, playing is a basic human need and you deserve to give yourself the gift of learning how to play. If you aren’t sure where to begin, check out the ideas below. Pick something that seems at least somewhat interesting, try it, and then tune into your intuition and you will be guided to other ideas.

Also, if you try something and it doesn’t work out or isn’t as fun as you expected, don’t give up! Just pick something else and try again. You may have to be patient with yourself as you learn how to play. But over time, it will become more fun and enjoyable.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  1. Play Frisbee, paddle ball, kickball or another outdoor game with family or friends
  2. Go on the swings at your local park
  3. Paint, draw, make a mosaic or do any other creative activity that calls you
  4. Dance and sing along with your favorite music or go out dancing with friends
  5. Spend time playing with young children (they are great teachers of play)
  6. Play with a dog or any other animal (they are great teachers too!)
  7. Take trapeze lessons alone or with friends
  8. Goof around with friends and co-workers (let your inner prankster come out again!)
  9. Play board games (I know this may sound silly, but try it, you may be surprised)
  10. Go horseback riding (or take a lesson if you’ve never been before)

When engaging in play, remember to put down your electronics and connect with yourself and the other people around you. As a child, you weren’t checking work emails or Twitter every five minutes when you played, so make sure to put down your phone and stay in the present moment…doing so will help you feel more joyful and rejuvenated.

Now that you’ve learned about all of the physical and emotional benefits of play and laughter, what type of play will you do this week?

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