Play is accepted and actively encouraged for children to aid their development, but when it comes to adulthood it’s often misunderstood and distrusted. What changed as we grew into adults? When, and why, did we stop believing that play has serious benefits?
When you close your eyes and think of the word play, what comes to mind? Little ones immersed in imaginary games, climbing a tree or diving into ball pits? Or do you see your adult self? The chances are that you pictured children. ‘Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution play has been viewed as appropriate for children and poets, but not for serious adults’ (Mainemelis & Ronson, 2006).
But the truth is that play is for everyone. The benefits of play don’t end in childhood. Just as play in childhood provides massive development for growth and learning, it also empowers adults to reach their full potential.
Meredith Van Vleet, an expert in human subject research, found the immediate and long term outcomes of play to include joy, inspiration, reduction in stress, greater resilience and problem-solving skills, flexible thinking and a boost to positive psychological and physical health.
So what does play in adulthood look like? We think it is any activity that you find enjoyable in and of itself, not just the outcome. Play doesn’t look or feel like one thing; it’s different for everyone, and is as individual as your fingerprint. We all have preferences around how we like to play, such as creating or developing something new, exploring intellectually, moving our bodies, absorbing or telling stories, or directing and progressing projects. These preferences can evolve throughout our life — but our commitment to making time for it should not.
“We are designed by nature and evolution to continue playing throughout life.” Dr Stuart Brown, 2009.
4 Reasons Why You Should Play As An Adult
1. Play strengthens our emotional wellbeing and resilience
When individuals play they have an enthusiastic and in-the-moment attitude, known as “flow,” which helps them detach from outside stressors and become completely absorbed in the activity, according to the renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Play has also been shown to relieve stress as it triggers endorphins that lift our spirits and help us deal with pain, fear and anxiety (Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, 2012). As such, play is an antidote to the setbacks and stresses of life.
2. Play in adulthood sustains our physical health
In addition to our mental and emotional well-being, play benefits our physical health too. A study at Einstein and Syracuse universities showed that people who had the most cognitive activity (puzzles, reading, engaging in mentally challenging work), were 63% less likely than the general population to develop Alzheimer’s disease (Brown, 2009).
Play can also naturally stir activity, which aids physical benefits like energy and movement. Additionally, those who play, explore, and learn throughout their lives are less likely to develop neurological problems or heart disease.
3. Play encourages connection and love
When we play together, we foster connection, belonging, trust, and intimacy which strengthens our relationships, teams and communities. Play in a group setting was found to help individuals build bridges and form cohesion even when there were differences. The group is also likely to experience flow and not worry about what others in the group are thinking about them (Ronit, 2011).
Some of our relationships are even built with play as a foundation. According to a study from Pennsylvania State University, characteristics such as “fun-loving,” “sense of humour,” and “playful” ranked among the top qualities that individuals seek in a long-term partner (Wallace, 2017).
4. Play enhances our work performance
Play and work can seem opposed, but research shows that play is not only good for the organisation — it’s essential for our own workplace wellbeing and success too. In a study of 245 employees from a variety of roles, fun at work was positively related to organisational citizenship behaviour, task performance, and creative performance (Fluegge-Woolf, 2014).
When people find a sense of play in their work, intrinsic motivation increases, leading to greater engagement, creativity, and productivity. The same “flow” that allows individuals to detach from outside stressors in their personal life also increases engagement and focus on a task or project.
For the organisation as a whole, play energises individuals and strengthens relationships within teams, leading to:
- Greater organisational resilience
- Higher employee engagement
- Increased innovation
- More inclusive collaboration
We believe the benefits of play for our wellbeing, health, relationships and work are compelling. To wrap up, we’ll leave you with a favourite quote of ours by Dutch scholar Manfred Kets de Vries:
“We shouldn’t turn away from the playful child within us, but let it lead us through life as we play, explore and try out new things. In our time, we will all experience the deadening effect of routines, plans, rules and the expectations of others. We should remind ourselves that we have it within us to be playful and spontaneous, to experiment with new challenges and explore new places, ideas and activities”.
Playfilled challenge: Keep a play diary for the next week. Write down how you played and how you felt while playing. Can you recognise the benefits of play in your life?