On Your Health

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The Power of Play: For Kids and Adults

The next time you feel like goofing off, just go with it. Do something silly that brings you joy. Play, a natural part of childhood, is just as important for adults as it is for kids. But you know as well as we do, in the hurly-burly swirl of everyday life it can be all too easy to become so focused on getting things done that we forget to lighten up, loosen up and play.

For adults, play can be a little break from the worries of the day. It’s a form of self-care. Doesn’t matter if it’s 15 minutes with a crossword puzzle or a couple of hours in the shed building a birdhouse, the benefits are real. Since play is meant to be intrinsically motivated (meaning you’re motivated by how it makes you feel, not by what others think), consider not sharing your escapades on social media. Be selfish! This is about joy, not likes! 

For children, perhaps Fred Rogers said it best: “Play is the work of childhood,” and it’s an important part of our healthy development into well-rounded adults. 

National Institute of Play founder Dr. Stuart Brown has identified eight types of ‘play personalities.’ His idea is that most of us lean toward one or two of these types:

The collector is a curator of things that bring them joy: comic books, rocks, stamps, antiques. The search is part of the fun.

The competitor. This person will completely and gleefully immerse themselves in whatever game is afoot, with the sole purpose of victory.  

The creator/artist. This is someone who loves a project. Let’s decorate cookies! Let’s paint! Plug in the glue gun and bring those pinecones over here.

The director. Your self-appointed cruise director, the organizer of activities and planner of fun, this person loves the process of planning and imagining the fun you’ll have.

The explorer is someone who loves discovering new places and activities, whether by traveling overseas or exploring the backyard.

The joker has never met a ‘dad joke,’ pun or whoopee cushion they didn’t like. Plastic spider in the pickle jar? Look no farther than your local joker.

The kinesthete is an active person, a body in motion. This person will be your pickleball buddy, or will meet you for a run, just about any time you’d like.  

The storyteller loves nothing more than regaling friends with an anecdote or interesting tale. Imaginary worlds, found in role playing games, are right up the storyteller’s alley.

What is play?

For children, the folks at Johns Hopkins Medicine define it this way: Play is an essential, natural part of childhood, important in its own right. Play facilitates coping, mastery, self-expression, creativity, achievement and learning, and is vital to a child’s optimal growth and development. Play is an integral aspect of child life practice with infants, children and youth of all ages.

For adults, think about play as something you engage in, an active, self-directed activity which brings us joy in and of itself, with no particular outcome in mind. For example, if you go for a run or meet a friend to play tennis simply because you love it, rather than because you’re trying to lose a few pounds, that is play. Play has no intended result, with the exception of joy.  

When we allow ourselves to play, we enter a kind of flow state. Time passes before you know it, and you feel refreshed and reconnected afterward. The joy of play can have a residual effect.  

There are four primary types of play, first identified by developmental psychologist Sara Smilansky,  generally associated with children, but which can also apply to adults.

Functional play is repetitive play with everyday objects, in which the object simply is what it is. A stick is a stick. Later developmental phases will see the stick transformed into a snake or a scepter by the child’s imagination, but in early development, a stick is just a stick. Constructive play is any play wherein materials are combined to create something new. Constructive play is goal driven – the child begins play with the idea or goal in mind. Games with rules can include board games with codified rules which cannot be argued or playground games like tag, which have no rulebook, but everyone knows the rules. Another type of rules-based play called situational play, for example, ‘Let’s play school. I will be the teacher, you be the student.’ Dramatic and sociodramatic play are about imitation. Pretending to mow the lawn or ‘work,’ or pretending to be a favorite cartoon character or superhero are examples. Sociodramatic play can be a part of other types of play.

What’s beneficial about play?

It can help us be active. It’s recommended that children get an hour of intense physical activity every day. The sad truth is, less than half of American children meet that recommendation. Playing at the park, climbing a tree, running after someone in a game of tag or kicking a soccer ball around all count as play – and exercise. Same goes for adults. 

Pro tip: If you’re a grownup looking for ways to get started on your return to play, make a list of your favorite childhood activities. Were you a tree climber? Climb a tree. Or, for a safer option, try going to a rock-climbing gym. Did you love softball? There are plenty of leagues for adults. Is there something you’ve always wanted to try, like surfing or skiing? There’s no time like the present. 

Play boosts brain power, makes problem-solving skills stronger and ups creativity. In developing brains (AKA children) play increases the size of the prefrontal cortex, making the brain better at solving problems, identifying and regulating emotion and making plans. For adults, play improves functionality of the brain, stimulates creativity and can trigger the release of feel-good hormones called endorphins. 

Stress relief. According to an article about the benefits of play for adults in The New York Times, it “offers us a reprieve from the chaos, and it challenges us to connect with a key part of ourselves that gets lost in the responsibilities of adulthood.” Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? 

It’s a social skills strengthener. Whether you’re three or 33, playing is a great way to make friends. Toddlers make friends playing with blocks or on the playground; adults make friends playing pick-up ball at the park or in exercise classes. Taking turns, learning the rules of a game together and navigating other social quandaries are wonderful components of play. 

It decreases aggression. Running, playing sports, pounding clay or dancing like nobody is watching are great ways to channel negative energy or simply use up excess energy that might otherwise come out sideways in the form of aggression.  

Play promotes better sleep. For kids and adults, vigorous, engaging play is a great way to release energy and reduce stress hormones, two things that will make sleep come more easily.

It helps young brains develop. Play affects the part of the brain in charge of thought analysis and decision making (the prefrontal cortex). 

What are some indoor and outdoor play ideas for kids and/or adults?

  • Indoor snowball fight! Use balled up socks for your ‘snowballs,’ and go wild.
  • Time trials. Who can run to the end of the driveway and back the fastest? Who can do it the most times in one minute?
  • Dance party! Move the sofa, turn on some tunes and shake your grooved thing!
  • Old-fashioned games. Hopscotch, leapfrog, hide and seek and freeze tag are loads of fun and require zero equipment.
  • Bicycle circus! Can you ride with one had? No hands? Standing up? Make up a routine and put on a show.


 It’s important to take yourself back to your childhood days, let yourself go, give yourself permission to play, and blow off some steam. For more lifestyle and wellness content, visit the INTEGRIS Health For You blog.


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