Until recently, it was relatively easy to dismiss the positive benefits of play for adults. Play, after all, was something that we “outgrew” as we got older, right? But researchers from a number of different scientific disciplines — from neuroscience to psychology — now say that play can be just as important for adults as it is for children.
One of the founders of the “play movement” for adults is Dr. Stuart Brown, who has literally written the book on play, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul. He has also established the first institute of its kind, The National Institute for Play, to support further work and research into the role of play in both children and adults.
But Brown is perhaps most famous for his 2009 TED Talk, Play Is More Than Just Fun, which has already racked up over 1.5 million views. In it, he suggests many of the ways that play can benefit adults.
The Mental and Psychological Benefits
The first and most important way play can benefit us is by providing a sense of psychological well-being. As Brown defines it, play is not the opposite of work — it’s the opposite of depression, which is what happens when people are deprived of all the little light moments in their lives that may seem purposeless. But it’s these same moments that actually protect our emotional and psychological well-being.
What Brown suggests is that people construct a “personal play history” that helps them connect with what made them happy as young children. By studying those early experiences — whether it’s a snowball fight in winter or clowning around with friends in a sandpit — it’s possible to show that people who have had a richer play history as both children and adolescents tend to be more well-adjusted adults. Brown himself has studied the play history of adult prisoners and found a potential causal link between a lack of happy childhood play and a propensity to commit crimes as adults.
And the very act of play causes neurons in the brain to fire. “There’s nothing that lights up the brain” like play, says Dr Brown. And that’s why some researchers have found a correlation between adult play and the ability to lower the risk of mental neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Playing games, solving puzzles, and fiddling with three-dimensional objects can improve memory and thinking skills. It’s the reason why adults are now embracing the coloring book craze with so much acclaim — a playful activity like this can help keep our cognitive skills from deteriorating.
The Physical Benefits
From a physical perspective, play also has some substantial benefits. One of these is the ability to protect the immune system by minimizing the impact of stress. Play is the great stress reliever, better than any medicine you could take.
And when it comes to relieving stress, the sillier, the better.
In March 2016, the city of London was the home of a fun experiment — to promote a new Candy Crush game, the marketers of the game created an “adults only” bounce castle — the kind usually reserved for young kids’ birthday parties. The organizers of the event quickly discovered that many stressed-out adults were more than happy to bounce away at “Bouncingham Castle.” (For more tips on how to access your silly side and incorporate play into your daily life, you can read my article here.)
Moreover, the National Institute of Play has found that play — especially what is referred to as “rough and tumble play” — can act as a great substitute for exercise. It’s the reason some gyms are now creating all kinds of fun fitness classes that essentially “trick” participants into thinking they are goofing around — maybe crawling around like animals and doing some Primal Play — when they are burning off the calories and getting in a full-body workout.
But even chasing your kids around the backyard can be a great form of exercise!
Benefits for Relationships
Being playful also has positive benefits for your relationships. Have you ever heard the phrase, “She’s all work and no play”? Nobody wants to spend too much time with people who aren’t fun and pleasant to be around. This doesn’t mean you have to be telling jokes all the time. But there’s nothing wrong with making witty comments to strangers to lighten the mood if you’re both waiting for a city bus, for example.
And flirtation is another way that adults “play” without even thinking about it. Flirtation is so useful because it’s a way people have evolved to send signals to others they don’t know.
Dr. Brown has studied the activities of animals in the wild and has isolated what he describes as “play signals” — signs the animals are having fun and not being serious. For animals like lions and polar bears, this means keeping the claws in, keeping the mouth (with all those scary fangs!) closed, and making ballet-like movements. When we keep our proverbial “fangs” hidden, we are essentially signaling to others that our intentions are playful. The same is true with flirting — little playful comments or gestures are a way of signaling you are open to the idea of playing (romantically, of course).
And playing in groups helps to build stable relationships with others by promoting a sense of belonging. It also empowers people with the freedom to act out roles in public. It’s the reason people enjoy taking a group of their friends to a karaoke lounge. Lip-syncing and pretending you’re a famous singer is just a form of advanced adult play.
Play in the Corporate World
With all these amazing benefits of play, it’s perhaps no surprise that corporations are now embracing the concept of play as a way to keep workers happy and more productive. It’s the reason you’ll see beanbags, foosball tables, and scooters at some of the world’s most innovative companies, including many in Silicon Valley.
Dr. Brown has even created a course at Stanford’s D School (“Design School”) called From Play to Innovation. In the course, students learn how to make play part of the innovation process. In one famous example, he challenged students in the class to find a way to make meetings fun.
One group of students came up with the idea of the “wearable meeting” — instead of a whiteboard and markers, people put on white jumpsuits and wrote fun ideas and messages on each other. Then, when the “meeting” is over, the participants could hang up their white meeting jumpsuits just like a whiteboard.
While that’s a bit fanciful, of course (just imagine trying to convince your boss to host a wearable meeting), there are practical implications for this type of thinking in the corporate world. One major focus, for example, is creating the perfect customer experience. And, as people have found, injecting a certain sense of play and humor into any customer experience can make it more enjoyable.
Make Play a Habit
Of course, there’s a lot more research work that needs to be done on the link between play and the mental, physical, and psychological benefits in adults. Most of the research work to date has focused on children and animals, but the evidence is mounting that just about anyone could benefit from making life a little more playful, if only for a few minutes a day.
Play, it turns out, may be much like sleep or nutrition — a fundamental factor that keeps us healthy and fit.