There is no doubt — scientifically or instinctively — that play is essential to a child’s development. As kids scramble around the playground or engage in imaginary games, research shows, they are learning about discovery, risk taking and building relationships. Play also helps develop motor and social skills and has been shown to stimulate the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s emotional epicentre. Its importance is so clear, in fact, that play is included in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as a fundamental right for everyone under the age of 18.
As crucial as it is in childhood, our impulse and ability to play all but vanish in adulthood. But when we abandon it for more mature pursuits, we may be giving up a lot. You don’t age out of the health benefits of play, experts say — it’s a critical part of good mental health, and it affects our ability to flourish creatively and, simply put, to lead a joyful life.
What qualifies as play when you’re an adult is different, however, than taking me time to go to the gym or binge watch The Mindy Project. Generally, it’s defined as doing something that delivers enjoyment purely for its own sake, says Dr. Stuart Brown, one of the world’s leading play experts and the founder of the National Institute for Play in California. It’s pleasurable and voluntary, and the action itself is more important than any particular outcome. “[Play] can be physical or imaginary, and it usually gives you a feeling of deep engagement without having to work at it; it just happens,” he says. “It often appears purposeless, and yet, if you look at its long-term benefits, it’s highly purposeful.”
Seemingly purposeless activity isn’t exactly a priority for those in the pressure cooker throes of mid-life. Perhaps in response to that, companies catering to adult-specific play experiences are popping up in a variety of forms — going well beyond the adult colouring book craze. Board game cafés are popular across the country. An indoor fitness playground, complete with the tag line “Bring back recess” and a ball pit, has opened in Toronto. Across North America, adults-only summer camps offer the opportunity to return to coed cabins and have water fights and campfire singalongs. And last year a “preschool” opened in New York City, where adults can play dress-up, fingerpaint and participate in show and tell.
Play is as important to our health as a good night’s rest or good nutrition, Brown says. He has studied the impact of play on mammals in the wild — and on thousands of adult subjects from a wide range of backgrounds — and discovered negative consequences when play is non-existent in an adult’s life. “There is usually a lack of optimism; they may be putting one foot in front of the other, they may be quite successful economically, but the play deprivation itself affects mood and their sense of joy.”
Studies of highly social mammals, such as rats and primates, have shown that the act of playing in childhood turns on specific neurons in the prefrontal cortex that create new connections linked with a whole gamut of functions, including decision making, problem solving, short-term memory and impluse control. And there’s evidence that multiple neural areas light up in adult humans when they’re experiencing joy, Brown says.
It’s a relatively new area of study but one that holds huge promise, says Sergio Pellis, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. “There’s potentially a very important role for play in adulthood, in terms of both what you can achieve with it and what it can do for your brain.”
|Play on the brain
Sergio Pellis, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Lethbridge, outlines what research has shown about the cognitive benefits of play for adults
|The stress effect
Stress degrades brain function, particularly as it relates to memory and cognition, says Pellis. Studies have shown that if adult animals are moderately stressed and then engage in play, stress-hormone levels decrease. “In adult humans, it’s possible that play can be a means by which you engage in stress reduction and protect your brain from deteriorating.”
|Strength in numbers
The prefrontal cortex — the area of the brain responsible for complex behaviours such as emotional response, impulse control and mood regulation — needs positive, friendly and playful interactions with a variety of people to keep it functioning at peak performance. “We know that if we re-expose animals to multiple partners, even in adulthood, they can re-modify this area of the brain,” says Pellis.
|Use it or lose it
As a general principle, “if you don’t keep using your brain, it will degrade over time,” Pellis says. “It’s certainly worthwhile to explore whether or not encouraging play at later ages would sustain the level of function and anatomical effects that are gained from childhood for much longer.”
Leave something to the imagination
When we’re not having fun, our creativity and motivation take a hit, says Brigid Schulte, a journalist based in Washington, D.C., and the author of Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. Her research into adult play showed that the lightness and whimsy of play trigger our imaginations. We can then turn those play-inspired ideas into reality in other areas of our lives, like work. “The more we squeeze the play or leisure or lightness out of our lives, however, the more the sense of possibility evaporates. And the ability to create something wholly new evaporates.”
North America’s 24/7 work culture leaves little room for that kind of playful thinking, and it’s taking a toll. In a poll conducted by Ipsos in April of this year, 19 percent of Canadians surveyed said they’ve been stressed to the point where they felt unable to cope several times within a year.
Even highly successful, creative people can be thrown off balance when play leaves the equation. Television titan Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, gave a TED Talk earlier this year about a light bulb moment she experienced after her gruelling work schedule had left her creatively stunted. What she described as an internal “hum” — the energy that fuelled her work — had gone silent. And then one weekend, when she was rushing out the door, her toddler asked, “Mama, wanna play?”
When she made time for play, the hum returned. “Not the hum, but a hum,” she said. She realized “the hum is not power, and the hum is not work-specific — the hum is joy.” It’s not even about playing with your kids, she said. “It’s about playing in general.”
The idea that adults should give themselves time (and permission) to play is gaining momentum. When Tonya Surman, founder and CEO of the Toronto-based Centre for Social Innovation and mother of two teenage boys, heard about Camp Reset, an adults-only summer camp north of Toronto, she registered immediately. She wanted a break from her “crazy, grown-up job” and to rediscover what she finds fun. Campers are required to hand in any tech devices, work talk is forbidden and they even adopt a camp name for the weekend.
The experience was “transformative,” she says, and it set the tone for the year that followed. “There’s such an honesty and authenticity to play, and when you let go of all of your baggage — your profession, your name, your technology — it gives you the opportunity to say, ‘How do I want to live my life?’ ” It’s a sentiment shared by a lot of visitors, says camp co-founder Adil Dhalla. “It allows people to see play as a tool to connect with other people, to be curious, to be free and to realize that it’s okay to be an adult and have fun.”
A similar philosophy was the catalyst for creating Adults Only Night at Telus Spark, Calgary’s science centre. “When you take the kids away, the adults are just as ready to play,” says Kristofer Kelly-Frère, manager of exhibit development and design. He and his team keep all ages in mind when they’re designing new exhibits. Take the Brainasium, an outdoor science-themed playground. Among its many kid- and adult-friendly features is a three-and-a-half-storey mesh tower that has a 63-foot-long stainless steel tube slide. “Everything out there is adult-sized on purpose,” he says. “All around [the Brainasium], there is signage that outlines the connection between risk and play and positive stress — the neuroscience of what’s actually happening when you engage in complex motor skills and how you’re building your brain, no matter what your age.”
These kinds of experiences can help you figure out how to reignite your sense of play, Schulte says, and reintroduce it into your daily life. “Having a colouring book or going to adult summer camp is like training wheels,” she says. “Anything that can bring some of that lightness into your life, in a way that you feel good about, is a good thing.”
But play doesn’t have to come with a huge time commitment or price tag. Schulte likens it to mindfulness and meditation: “Most of us can’t go over to India and be in an ashram for five months, but we can take 10 minutes; we can take five breaths.”
And a little goes a long way, says Brown. “We’re not talking about giving your life over to escapism,” he says. Simply singing along to music as you’re doing the dishes or taking a walk without knowing the route is enough to make a difference. You might also look to what brought you joy as a child: For instance, if you loved playing in the dirt as a kid, try taking up gardening. “When you begin to build on your own intrinsic play personality, there’s often a real release of energy and joyfulness that is transformative.”
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