The Importance of Adult Play (and How to Play More!)

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Play is a complex set of behaviors characterized by fun and spontaneity. When we play, we incorporate exploration and experimentation. Play research has primarily focused on children, as it’s vastly important for their development. It helps them develop reasoning and social skills and boost their self-confidence. However, just because we are grown up, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t play.  In fact, we may play all the time, without realizing it. Play doesn’t require we have any goal directed behavior; we can do it for joy alone. It helps us get out of our head and into the flow. Presence may reduce stress, add zest to life, and help us connect to people and our environment.

Types of Play and Their Benefits

Rough -and-Tumble Play

Rough-and-tumble play is equally enjoyable, vigorous behaviors that include some form of friendly competition. This type of play may look like aggression from the outside but operates under the guise of caring and moderation. Rough-and-tumble play can be wrestling, chasing, tickling. Etc. It can also be non-physical, like mutually understood banter or teasing.

It is performed between parties who have an established history of safety and security. Rough-and-tumble play helps increase social bonding and intimacy. It can also help participants build resilience. There is an element of surprise in this type of play, whether it’s an unexpected tickle or witty quip. People are required to shift gears quickly. This may promote mental flexibility and adaptability. This play allows adults to assert themselves in a controlled manner.

Spectator Play (Onlooker Play)

Spectator play is when we watch others play, but don’t get directly involved. The largest example for adults is recreational sport spectatorship. People who watch sports feel a sense of connection to the players. This can help reduce feelings of loneliness. Also, being a fan creates a feeling of being part of a group; it provides a sense of identity and belonging. Sporting events can also be an appropriate outlet for emotions. Spectators can yell and cheer, and express excitement or dismay. Also, watching sports with others creates social connectedness.

Imaginative Play

It can be easy to get caught up in the logic of things as an adult. Operating in the world requires that we make rational decisions to maintain stability. However, imaginative play (aka pretend play/make believe) can be helpful for adult emotional regulation and creativity. We can use imaginative to play self-soothe. If we are feeling anxious, we can imagine a peaceful place where we feel comfortable, real or imagined. We can even imagine sensations, like the warmth of the sun, to help promote relaxation. Types of imaginative play may include acting/improv, live action role play (aka LARPing), building cities/structures with Lego, having a murder mystery party, imaginative games (e.g., Dungeon’s and Dragons).

Physical Play

Physical play helps us channel energy and build strength and coordination. Activities may include yoga, weightlifting, biking, martial arts, hiking, dancing, etc.

Intellectual Play

Intellectual play requires us to use our mind to solve problems. It can help us sharpen our memory and strategy skills. Activities may include games like chess, sudoku, scrabble, solving math problems, doing puzzles, etc.

How to Play More

  1. Explore play history. This is the personal record of play throughout our lifetime. Focus on what brought the most joy. What activities did we do? What toys did we play with? Who did we play with? Where did we play? Focus on the emotionality of play history and consider how to incorporate that feeling into adulthood. This can help us identify play activities to prioritize.
  2. Examine barriers to play. Fear of feeling foolish or acting silly may hinder us from engaging in play activities. We may also view play as childish, a descriptor we often use negatively. However, instead of viewing children as full of folly, we should take lessons in play. Let go of self-judgment; realize that if no one is being hurt, we deserve fun, too.
  3. Join hobby groups. Join a photography group, sing in the community choir, play chess in the park with strangers. Meeting people who share our passions helps us learn new skills and make friends.
  4. Schedule play. Although play is spontaneous, we can still set aside time for it. Having a routine will help us build good play habits.
  5. Find micro moments of play. Dance to music while getting ready in the morning, play a quick game of Tetris while on the bus, text a joke to a friend, etc.

Who said play is just for children? Fun is for everyone. So, go play!

Sources

https://www.ted.com/talks/stuart_brown_play_is_more_than_just_fun/transcript?language=en#t-1577166

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00207284.2017.1307077?journalCode=ujgp20

https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-role-of-make-believe-play-in-adult-life#4

https://activelearningspace.org/principles/what-is-play

https://www.symmetrycounseling.com/psychologist-chicago/mental-health-benefits-of-being-a-sports-fan-and-paying-sports/

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