August 21, 2017

Why adults should get out and play

Four people playing a ring toss game in a yard

Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, we stop playing.

With job and family responsibilities we often have an endless to-do list and rarely take the time to engage in fun, rejuvenating activities. But, like our parents so often used to say to us, it’s time for us to turn off the TV (or computer) and “Just go outside and play!”

While play may seem frivolous - or even possibly silly - when we’re adults, it is actually vital to our well-being. UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, explains that play helps relieve stress, boosts creativity, improves our mood and outlook and keeps our minds sharp. It also improves our relationships with others.

“In play we find the freedom to color outside the lines of our life. There is a learning that comes from this unstructured time. It allows us to tap into our imagination, try different things and not be afraid to fail along the way,” she said.

Watch a group of young children at play and you’ll likely hear rich, complex stories of imaginary lands and characters doing impossible things. While we might not engage in “pretend” play, unstructured creative time allows us to use our imagination to see worlds where anything is possible. When we step outside ourselves, even just for a few minutes, we may find the solution we’ve been looking for, new insights and innovations, and even greater creativity.

We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.

— George Bernard Shaw

Schedule time to play

Perhaps it’s a reflection of our society these days, but spontaneous opportunities to play can be hard to come by. Most kids have scheduled playdates and it’s something adults should consider as well.

“Set the intention to add regular play time back into your calendar. Clear your schedule for a few hours. Turn off electronics, and try something fun you haven’t done since you were a kid,” suggests Mirgain.

Some ideas she offers include:

  • Hosting a game night with friends

  • Going to a water park

  • Playing with a pet

  • Crafting or other art projects

  • Playing with children

  • Hosting a costume party

  • Playing in a local park

  • Playing tennis or Frisbee, or get a group and play kickball

Mirgain shared that one couple purchased boxes of sugary cereals and watched Saturday morning cartoons while sampling the different brands. Another couple started playing disc golf, while another started game night with their neighbors. All of which helps bring up another important aspect of play – just like when we were kids, it’s always a lot more fun with others.

Play well with others

Play is a great way to strengthen relationships old and new. Humor and even silliness can help new couples – or even acquaintances or colleagues – move beyond the awkward “getting to know you” phase. It helps lower our barriers and enables us to connect on a more emotional level. Playing together can re-kindle relationships and foster greater intimacy. It can even help people move past disagreements and frustrations.

“Play bonds us together in a different kind of way. It builds trust, quiets our inner-critic and eases our feelings of stress,” said Mirgain. She notes that despite the tremendous benefits of play, even children’s play time has significantly declined over the last half century.

“Some research suggests that if there is an absence of play in adolescence there is a vulnerability to developing behavioral issues and depression and anxiety later in life. Regular play is critical for kids’ social, emotional, cognitive and physical development,” said Mirgain.

To help, parents can make play time with their kids a priority. Whether it’s imaginary play with toddlers, tag on the playground, or even a game of catch, the time together will strengthen your connection and help both of your physical, emotional and mental health.