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November 3, 2017
by Tracey Block

Playing is the Prescription for Good Adult Health

November 3, 2017 15:30 by Tracey Block  [About the Author]

“I like to laugh a lot. I like to run around and be silly.”

At first glance, one might assume those words were spoken by a young child. But surprise! It was 41-year-old Sue Hamilton who had that and more to say about the importance of play in her daily adult life. Hamilton, a mortgage banker, was one of several adults interviewed for a CNN story on the subject by Special Projects writer Amy Chillag, published just today.

Hamilton plays kickball every week in Piedmont Park, an urban greenspace just off the downtown in Atlanta, GA. “It brings you back to a little bit of your childhood,” she said. Hamilton reminisces about “being able to have that recess time that we did when we were younger. . . You don’t have to worry about work,” she added.

Common sense tells us not only children profit from play. According to the CNN story, research has long recognized the significance of play for adults—for their physical, mental and emotional well-being.

Dr. Bowen White is a physician and founder of the Department of Preventive and Stress Medicine for the Baptist Medical Center in Kansas City, MO. He also sits on the board of directors for the National Institute for Play (NIFP), and says taking time to play is a fundamental part of life and vital to adult health.

In the CNN article, White says play should feel good--something completely opposite to the harmful stressors the adult body is accustomed to experiencing on a daily basis. He explains that with play comes laughter. And laughter is associated with a reduction in stress and inflammation, and may even provide assistance to vascular health.

The NIFP’s website illustrates how the institute is participating in an examination of the science of play. “We are looking to what the biological, social and physical sciences can tell us, so we can help unlock the transforming power of play.” The website explanation describes play as a human activity that is as basic and as ubiquitous as the natural phenomenon of sleep. “Like sleeping and dreaming, it is ready to be examined as a whole.” 

Psych Central is an independent mental health social network created in 1995 and overseen by mental health professionals. World of Psychology is Psych Central’s foremost blog dedicated to the examination of “psychology, human behavior, mental health and illness, and the intersection of technology with all of these things”.

In a July 2017 World of Psychology blog post, “No Matter Your Age, Never Say Goodbye to Play”, Therese J. Borchard wrote of her surprise that playful activity had provided her with a much-needed respite from her own devastating depression. “Its transformative power is surprising to me for its ability to help me manage my emotions,” she wrote.

Borchard said that through her own experience with play, she was beginning to think playing could gain admittance to areas of the brain that may be “blocked to mindfulness, meditation, and cognitive-behavioral therapy.

In her article, Borchard quotes NIFP founder and psychiatrist, Dr. Stuart Brown, from his 2009 TED Talk. “Nothing lights up the brain like play,” he said. “The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression.” And finally: “Those who play rarely become brittle in the face of stress or lose the healing capacity for humor.”

Brown’s words are echoed on the NIFP website that says existing research “explains how play shapes our brains, creates our competencies, and ballasts our emotions”.

Yet simply knowing the facts—that adults who are playful receive health benefits--is not the full answer. Breaking away from the play deprivation of adulthood; getting out there and playing—clearly seems to be the solution. But how? If one is not yet part of a team or a gym, how to start?

Elisha Goldstein, PhD, suggests tips for adults who want to get back to engaging in play--in her June 2009 mindfulness and psychotherapy blog for Psych Central, titledMental Health: Break from Routine and Back into Play”.

First, Goldstein suggests adopting a “no goal attitude”. Rather than establishing a reason why one is participating in play, Goldstein supports the recommendations of other play experts who say one should play simply “for the sake of play”.

Goldstein also says adults should get down on their hands and knees to play—useful, she says, if one has children or pets. She points out that while adults often “feel this [activity] is beneath us or not acceptable,” she urges them to instead focus on being present and engaged.

Goldstein also asks adults to look back on the activities or hobbies that were enjoyable in the past and to try them again—but, with the new “no goal attitude”. She even suggests trying laughing yoga, a recent twist on the popular activity.

Finally, in order to engage in play, Goldstein offers the idea of a vacation—though, nothing elaborate. The idea here is to pick a day, or just an afternoon, to do something you may have always wanted to do. Play alone or in a group. But, Goldstein encourages everyone to make a daily effort to play.

 "You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation."    




Borchard, T. J., (July 19, 2017). World of Psychology. No Matter Your Age, Never Say Goodbye to Play

Chillag, A., (November 2, 2017). Why adults should play, too.

Goldstein, Elisha, PhD. (June 19, 2009). Mindfulness and Psychotherapy. Mental Health: Break from Routine and Back into Play.

Kenney, T., (February 8, 2013). 5 Questions with Dr. Sergio Pellis. UNews, University of Lethbridge.

National Institute of Play. (Retrieved on November 1, 2017.) Science and Human Play.


About the Author

Tracey Block
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