Play begins with a smile and a cooing laugh between a mother and her infant. Play continues throughout infancy, the toddler years, and into childhood. As adults, we play less. When we do, it is often directed, goal-oriented play where we hope to gain something - a new skill or learning. Or we compete in matches of strength or wits.
The idea that adults do not play enough is not surprising. But in these days of busy, hurried schedules, some young children are missing out on the power of play. Many parents feel pressured to involve their children in "enriching" after-school activities and lessons so their children do not fall behind. Add more structured, adult-directed activities to a child's day, and you subtract from the time that remains for free, unfettered play.
Free, open-ended, pointless play is important to all of us at all ages. Adults can enjoy some of the same benefits that children get from play, like enjoyment, release from stress, or enhancement of memory and imagination. We should all let ourselves play more - or at least be more playful.
In a recent survey, researchers noted that young adults who had played more as children were more likely to be healthy, to eat nutritious diets, and to get regular exercise. Play helps to build stronger, more dexterous bodies and to stave off the childhood obesity epidemic, worsening with increasing number of hours that children spend in "passive play" in front of TV or computer screens.
And play builds agile, creative brains that help boost problem-solving skills, memory, and the ability to envision potential that has not yet materialized. Play lets kids try on roles and character traits to see how they feel, how they fit. They learn how to interact, share, and communicate with their peers. And play helps children cope with new or troubling situations.
Through play, children engage their creativity and their imagination. They visualize people and situations that are not real, and they do so while fully playing by the rules of make-believe. They run, jump, skip, and tumble without thought of a desired outcome or a big win at a game. That's because play is all about the means, not the ends. It is about having a good time doing what you want to do rather than what you have to do.
Play does not have to be an organized game with formal rules. Play is whatever is fun to you, whatever allows you to immerse yourself in the moment, in the doing rather than the completing. If you're stumped for play ideas, consider the different patterns of play, as noted by Dr. Stuart Brown of the Institute for Play:
- attunement play: This type of play begins in the bonding moments between parent and infant. But it could also be likened to the feeling of attuning oneself to others, like when a crowd cheers together for a team or shares a playful, revelatory vibe at a rock concert or a party.
- body play and movement: Brown calls this kind of play "a spontaneous desire to get ourselves out of gravity." Body play and movement could be running, walking, cliff diving, swimming, or dancing. It could be a simple shimmy you do as your favourite song plays in your headphones while at your office desk.
- object play: Toys are not just for kids. Grown-ups have toys, too. You may love cutting out photos and gluing them into scrapbooks. You may enjoy tossing a football at the park with your brother-in-law. Or maybe you tinker with toy trains. Object play happens when you pretend that broom magically transforms into a microphone or a sword when no one else is looking.
- social play: As kids, this is the rough-and-tumble play in the grass. As adults, it's the joy of a team sport or a friendly game of HORSE on a neighbourhood court. Social play is interactive, light-hearted, or celebratory, like when you high-five strangers after viewing an amazing goal on the TV at a sports pub.
- imaginative or pretend play: Life experience makes it hard for adults to engage in true make-believe play. But you play "pretend" when you envision the possibility of something, when you daydream, or when you have "what if?" conversations. This is the kind of play where you let your imagination soar outside the bounds of reality.
- storytelling play: You may not tell ghost stories around the campfire like you used to. But why not? Telling tales and sharing stories - or listening to or reading stories - is fun. It is a kind of play in which you may have to suspend disbelief and follow a narrative where it leads.
- creative play: Just because play is for its own sake doesn't mean you can't create something tangible out of it. Creative play is when you devise inventions and innovations, play music, or sketch pictures for the heck of it or for that big idea you've been seeking.