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November 13, 2015
by Agnes Oh, PsyD, LMFT

Science Behind Power of Play: How Play Can Improve Health, Work, and Family Relationships

November 13, 2015 11:00 by Agnes Oh, PsyD, LMFT

In modern lives, play is not something many people entertain or even incorporate as part of a daily routine. For most adults, play is regarded as trivial and its significance, under-estimated. More often than not, play is thought of something that’s exclusive to the world of children.

A new body of research is proving it to be otherwise. It turns out that play is not just important for kids but also essential for adults. Science is showing how play is a powerful source of creativity that can help fuel motivation, imagination, and emotional intelligence by promoting problem-solving and conflict resolution skills (Shute, 2009).

Importance of Play

With the advance of technology, human lives have become increasingly more hectic and complicated. As a result, many people are deprived of the necessary time to relax and play for pure fun. If prolonged, however, this state of privation could engender adverse ramifications on health and relationships (Brown, 2010).

Based on his decades of research studying the power of play, psychiatrist Stuart Brown (2010) has posited that play is one of the basic biological drives (as sleep and food) critical to human health and well-being. He even compared play to oxygen, underscoring the value of play in human life.

In his study, Brown has reviewed over 6,000 case studies (involving play histories of people from all walks of life including prisoners, successful business people, artists, and Nobel Prize winners), examining the role of play in each person’s life.  His data suggested that lack of play in childhood, among other variables, was a major hindrance to establishing a happy, well-adjusted life later as adults. Conversely, Brown also concluded that play is a catalyst for maximum productivity, optimal socialization, and greater emotional intimacy in relationships.

Psychologists are claiming that play has steadily declined in recent years, which is bearing negative consequences for kids and adults alike. Further research has correlated this declining trend with a surge in psychopathology (e.g. depression and anxiety) among children and adolescents including a host of other mental health challenges later in life (Gray, 2011).

Benefits of Play

Contrary to what many adults might think, it is much simpler and easier to reap the benefits of play in our daily life. It is suggested that play must be integrated as a way of living embedded in what we do every day, readily accessible via any unstructured, unrestricted form of simple activities such as laughing, flirting, and even daydreaming (Brown, 2010).

Play does not have to involve a major planning in advance. Nor does it need to entail any particular structure. In fact, if play is too rigid and purposeful with the end goal as the main focus, it is no longer play. Play must be free-flowing and imaginative if it were to truly benefit our social, emotional, and cognitive development and well-being. Free play has to be self-directed and intrinsically rewarding without any specific goals to be achieved (Gray, 2011).

Opportunities to play in the true sense of the word can be easily created in spontaneous moments of laughter, goofiness, humor, and some novel experiences we allow ourselves to embrace every day. The benefits of play can be most maximized when it can be experienced simply as a process rather than as a means to achieve certain goals at the end, thereby creating new ways of being, doing, and relating (ibid.).

In this vein, play is crucial to our learning, personal growth, and the way we connect with others. In particular, play is known to help relieve stress, improve brain functioning, increase productivity and concentration, promote cooperation/collaboration with others, build strong interpersonal connections, and even delay mental decline in old age (Shute, 2009).


After all, play is not petty. Nor is it a luxury as once thought.  

Science is proving how children and adults alike can no longer afford to opt out of it. It is an indispensable part of our very being as humans if we are to live a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life.  As scientifically delineated, play-deprived life can result in some devastating consequences compromising the quality of life.

Play is something we must engage in daily not only to maximize our potential but to merely preserve our sense of worth and well-being as humans. It is as fundamental and basic to human life as that.  

Perhaps it is not a simple cliché when we say we are still a kid at heart. We may seriously need to take the time to be a child all over again, every single day of our lives, if we are to bring out the best in us.

Truly this is a humble, yet revolutionary invitation for all of us to play together with our children and one another as grown-ups. All of us need to play and in playing together every day, we may be able to collectively learn how to be genuinely human.


Brown, S. 2010. Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul

Gray, P. 2011. The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents. American Journal of Play, volume 3, number 4.

Shute, N. March 2009. US News Health. 10 Reasons Play Can Make You Healthy, Happy, and More Productive: Recess Helps Kids Do Better In School. Retrieved from

About the Author

Dr. Agnes Oh Dr. Agnes Oh, PsyD, LMFT

Dr. Agnes Oh is dually licensed as a clinical psychologist and a marriage and family therapist in the state of California, fully committed to helping each individual to maximize his/her intrinsic potential to heal, grow, and thrive.

Dr. Agnes Oh has a clinical practice in Glendale, CA

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