Life is play – play is life

Getting into the wonderful state of flowPlay

Play is a vital part of our lives. As young children, it is through play that we gradually learn to master a complex world. In play, the child can mimic the adults, test boundaries and learn how to act and behave in their own environment and react in different situations. But play is not only for children; it also has a number of benefits for adults. In play and playful activities, we can be absorbed and end up in the state of total presence and the feeling of being one with an activity we sometimes call “flow“.

There is no other human activity that has so many positive effects for our development and our well-being as play. Play makes us better at impulse control, planning, organisation, problem solving, literacy, language development, and the use of symbols. It increases our mathematical ability, curiosity, divergent thinking, cognitive integration of varying experiences, flexibility, emotional regulation, stress reduction, integration of cognition and emotions, empathy, respect, social interactions, cooperation and tolerance for others.

Many people mistakenly believe that play is only for children. But play is also important to us adults. When we play as adults, we can for a moment forget about work and the musts and socialise in an unstructured and creative way. The focus of play is on the actual experience, not on achieving something. It does not have to be any other meaning with the activity than to have fun and enjoy life. Play can be to hang out with friends, chat with the cashier in the supermarket, throw a ball in the park, dress up on a custom party, build a sand castle on the beach, throw a stick with a dog, play charades at a party or have a mischievous and playful sex.

But play does not have to be a special activity – on the contrary, it’s more to be considered a state of mind. Developing a playful personality helps us to relax in stressful situations, break the ice with strangers, make new friends and form new business relationships.

However, play among adults is sometimes looked down on. In our struggle to fit work and everyday life together we are drowning in a lot of musts, and never seem to have time to just have fun. Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, we begin to down prioritise play more and more. It’s easier and more tempting to sit in front of the computer or to relax in front of the TV than to throw ourselves into the fun games that we did as children. And with our adult seriousness, we take out the playfulness of what could have been a play. When we play tennis or go a round of golf, it can easily move away from an activity driven by joy to become a serious battle for life and death.

We all need to play, and life without play is boring. Our life crises, the moments when we stop to ask ourselves if this is really all that life offers, often occurs in periods when the demands on us from children, family, jobs and careers have given us less and less time to play and enjoy the joyful parts of life. But just because we are adults doesn’t mean we have to take ourselves so seriously. Everything in life is not about work. Making life more playful makes it more meaningful and gives us new energy, energy and motivation.

The more we play, the more we develop our brains throughout life. In adulthood when the brain does not develop as much, the urge to play is not as strong, but even in adults it may have play abstinence with lower mood after a long period of time without play, which can be broken by taking a few hours off and throwing ourselves out in play. Afterwards, we feel again happy, positive and curious.

Through sports, jokes, word games, culture experiences, love and other play-related activities we gradually build up a whole repertoire of experiences, behaviours, memories (even body memories) that we can later use in all aspects of our lives. Without these experiences, we had not been able to function in our complex society.

Play also has many other benefits. Some play requires physical activity. This reduces our stress levels and gives us a long-term better energy and stamina. The physical activity also triggers our reward system with small flushes of dopamine and endorphins, the body’s own joy hormone, which stimulates our desire and creativity. In the book The Chemistry of Joy, the author Dr Henry Emmons points out that regular physical activity 30 minutes a day manages mood swings as effectively as medication or psychotherapy.

It has also been shown that regular physical activity, regardless of whether it is linked to play or not, improves our thinking ability, makes it easier for us to learn new things and improves our memory. Already the ancient Greeks noted this and the ancient Greek philosophers were teaching and discussing while walking with their students.

Play also improves brain functions more generally. In the same way as physical exercise keeps the body in shape, play, games and intellectual challenges keep the brain in tune. Playing chess, playing jigsaw puzzles, playing a game of bridge or engaging in other stimulating activities that challenge the brain make us prevent memory problems and become more intellectually aloud high up in the ages. The social interaction at the game can also ward off stress and depression.

Play is one of the most effective tools to keep our relationships fresh and exciting. Sharing laughter and fun situations promotes empathy, compassion, trust and intimacy with others. Playing together brings joy, vitality and resilience in relationships. Play can also heal resentment, disagreements and hurt feelings. In regular play, we learn to trust each other and feel safe.

By making a conscious effort to incorporate more humour and play in the daily contacts with our closest, we can improve the quality of our relationships both around the kitchen table and in the bedroom. Play can also heal emotional wounds. The same playful behaviours that underlie emotional health in children can also lead to positive changes in adults.


This blog post has been inspired by:

Scott Barry & Gregoire Carolyn (2016). Wired to create: Discover the 10 things great artists, writers and innovators do differently.

Brown Stuart, Vaughan Christopher (2010). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination and invigorates the soul.

Illustration: – rudyanderson

svensk_flagga   Detta blogginlägg på svenska

Author: Karl Ekdahl

International public health leader and creativity blogger.

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