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The Importance of Play. . .It's Serious Business!

One of my favorite quotes goes something like this; "we don't stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing."

As a kid, play is the mode through which we learn. We interact with the environment by climbing trees, rolling around in the dirt and taking a tumble during a pick-up game of football. We learn many different things during play. We learn what we are good at, how to problem solve, the ins-and-outs of working with others and how to spontaneously transform a dull situation into one of fun and challenge.

I think everyone would agree that children can (and do) learn as much from their play and the interactions associated with play, as they can learn in a classroom. Sadly, as we grow older, we start to play less frequently. Even children entering their teenage years, already see a decline in playtime and spontaneous activity, as more pressure from academia creeps in, and teenage pressure to spend a little more time being “cool,” than getting their hands dirty during a “childish” game.

But play is SO important! We evolved through play, we thrive on it, we live vicariously through viewing play - Ever wonder why we get such a kick from watching our favorite sports teams play on TV?

A new idea that you spawned is nothing more than playful expression of your mind. We play with our words, to tell stories and impersonate and transform abstract ideas into realisms. Play is how we learn, to this very day it is how we learn, yet it seems we are losing touch with play. Especially play of the physical kind.

Scientists have long understood the role of play and the psychological benefits of its practice. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Perceived sense of freedom, independence, and autonomy,

  • Enhanced self-competence through improved sense of self-worth, self reliance, and self-confidence,

  • Better ability to socialize with others, including greater tolerance and understanding,

  • Enriched capabilities for team membership,

  • Heightened creative ability,

  • Improved expressions of and reflection on personal spiritual ideals,

  • Greater adaptability and resiliency,

  • Better sense of humor,

  • Enhanced perceived quality of life,

  • More balanced competitiveness and a more positive outlook on life (Academy of Leisure Sciences & Driver, 1994).

Unfortunately, once full-blown adulthood hits, many people have put play well and truly in their rear view mirrors. Seeing their glory days of playful fun, as nothing more than a distant memory.

We are adults now. We must do adult stuff. There's no time for play. "I am serious about my career, I just don't have time, I'm too tired after work” are all common reactions when thinking about play.

The laundry list of reasons that play ceases to exist far into adulthood could be limitless. However, a general trend underlies the main reasons we forget, or chose not to play. That is that, play, is simply seen as a waste of time. It is deemed un-important, and any time you choose to play, you could be ‘adulting’ instead - why go for a game of ultimate frisbee, when your partner has been nagging at you for weeks to clean out the garage? Or you have to file your taxes?

Many people see play as an idealistic scenario, one which isn't realistic or important in their life, all else considered. There is a strange guilt behind pleasure for pleasures sake, often driven by the consumerist mentality that is pushing us to work, work, work. However, I believe that play is so important. I think that it only grows with importance as we age.

Work Play Balance

It is pretty apparent that we work too much these days, barely carving out a social life for ourselves, or our loved ones, along the way.

Interestingly, and sadly, even kids aren’t playing as much these days. Did you know that the average child is spending a depressingly meager 4 hours a week on play? This is less than half that of what their parents used to, when they where kids (>8 hours). When kids have to check their schedule to see if they can squeeze in some play, we have a pretty big problem. Remember; “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!”

A new Zealand study found that workers were 82% more productive after a vacation, and had better sleep cycles. The New York Times recently ran a study showing that with increased leisure activity time, peoples immune response was positively effected. Conversely, higher stress levels had the opposite effect. It should also be noted that taking frequent movement breaks at work is a sure fire way to improve focus, productivity and overall happiness of employees in the work place

From even a quick look at the literature, it becomes apparent that if we can reduce stress, which we can very effectively with play, then we can be on our way to a happier and healthier life.

We need to break the negativity and guilt attached to play. There is nothing at all wrong with taking time for yourself, to play, or do things that you love and get benefit from. We can often lose sight of this and begin to feel that anytime we chose to do something that makes us happy, we are being selfish and could use that time more productively.

Contrary to this belief, I live a life full of doing the things that I love. It isn't for selfish reasons, it is because I enjoy investing in myself and the trade off that comes with that. Increased positive mood, productivity and energy. . .and it makes me a better person.

When I play and take this time to look after myself, everything else in life seems rudimentary. Under stress with work? Having some relationship trouble? Worried about a family member being sick? Get out and do something you love. Play. Interact with the world around, and the people. Go to park and throw a frisbee around. Join a team and play 5 a side football once a week, learn a new instrument, play golf, start to paint.

How do you play?

Play is limitless in its definition and boundaries. You can play in anyway that stimulates you, holds your interest and makes you feel good. What you will often find is that all of those life problems that have been eating at you - they go away. They disappear. You have no time for them when you are truly invested in yourself, through play.

Whether this lasts 10 minutes or 2 hours - for that time frame you are just you. Not bound to the weight of expectation and pressure. Just you, investing in yourself, having fun and playing.

I'm not saying that when your play is over, all of your life worries and stress will be gone. However, I challenge you this; go out and play. Do anything you want to do, Anything that is calling you and peaks your interest. This may be something you haven't done since you were a kid, or an old hobby you used to love before your work commitments squashed that, or even something you’ve always wanted to try, yet have put off because you didn’t see it as a priority.

Take note of your mood and how you feel before taking this opportunity to invest some time in yourself, do something fun, and then tell me how you feel afterwards. I am willing to bet you will feel energized, refreshed and ready to take on life, just a little bit more than you were before.

Those stressors and worries that have been bringing you down, have a tendency to look a little less scary after play. Play has a unique characteristic of putting things into perspective. You can often find the answers to the questions your looking for so hard, when you just stop looking and start playing.

Striving to be the best version of yourself is something beyond should be doing on a daily basis. You are not a fixed entity. You are not even the same you from one day to the next. The you - in a good mood, with a great sleep behind you, and the sun on your back, is a different version of the you that is stressed, hungry and has to walk to work in the cold and rain.

Play will help you be your better you - and everything and everyone around you will benefit from that, but most importantly, YOU will benefit from that.

No one is going to look after you, like you can. You absolutely have to put yourself first at times, because if you don't, no one else will. This isn't selfishness, this is investment in yourself to become a better version of you.