Yes, psychologists are now linking the rise in children’s anxiety and depression to a lack of free play. Kids aren't experiencing the benefits of play like they once did.
Yep, experts recommend kids get around six hours of outdoor time every day because they need to roam and explore. Six hours.
Yes, we get mom-shamed if our little angel yells, “Want watch TV” because we all know that screen time is causing significant delays in children’s motor, social, and language development. Instead, we're supposed to be "talking to" and "playing with" our own children to help them grow into passable adults.
But what about us? Can't us grown ass folks experience the benefits of play?
I’m a grown ass man, and I get anxious and depressed. My family tree is like a who’s who of major mental health problems.
I’m 40, but I’m not so jaded yet as to be totally done roaming and exploring. There’s shit I haven’t seen yet.
And I’m ostensibly an adult but still want to improve my motor, social, and language development. I want to get better at hitting balls with sticks. I'd love to finally be able to mingle at parties and not hide behind furniture. And I’m trying to learn Bosnian, German, and Spanish before I die…and suck less at English. I’ve got a vision board, people!
What’s good enough for our little toddling toddlers and twerking teens should be good enough for us.
We need to play more. We need to put down the so-called smart phone, get outside, and just get silly with it in order to truly experience the benefits of play.
Here are 7 reasons why we all need some more play in our lives:
Reason 1: Because Science Says So
Science, you know the science, says that improvisation benefits the brain by allowing the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex to take a well-deserved break. What does this even mean? Well, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is like the guard in the watch tower. When she’s on duty, she is regulating what you say, how you say it, and whether or not you just did something stupid. She’s the editor, always making sure you are doing what you’re "supposed" to do.
The problem with this guard though is that she is also preventing you from being spontaneous and creative. Cognitive neuroscience is starting to see that the rule-bound play of improv allows the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex to take five. This leads to people getting out of their heads and going with the flow.
It’s a pretty great feeling, and one of the easiest ways to tap into this mode of thinking is to play a game. Games have rules and goals that you can focus on instead of focusing on how bloated you look today or how you hope there’s nothing stuck in your teeth.
Simply put, one of the benefits of play is that we get to stop overthinking and start focusing on the game at hand.
Reason 2: Because if it Feels Good, Do It
Science, the one and only, also says that play allows us to focus on intrinsic instead of extrinsic rewards. Let’s break this down. Intrinsic rewards come from within. Extrinsic without…or outside yourself.
When we play games, we are doing it because it’s fun. Because it feels good. Even because we want to feel what it feels like to improve or win the game. These are all intrinsic pursuits. No trophies allowed here, no cash, no raise. And for sure no glowing praise from spouses or bosses.
Extrinsic rewards do not make us feel as good in the long run. They just don’t. Point blank period.
Reason 3: Because Mary Poppins was Right
Full exposure—I’ve never been a Mary Poppins fan. I’ve always found her a bit too holier than thou. But I was having a dance party with my two year-old one witching hour and she came through on our Spotify playlist:
“In every job that must be done
There is an element of fun
You find the fun and snap!
The job’s a game”
It was an Oprah-level aha moment for me. Mary Poppins explained one of the reasons game playing is so vital even into our adult years. Games make chores more fun, or at the very least, more bearable. We have to complete our daily drudgery, so we might as well rethink how we are framing said drudgery. Basically, stop thinking it’s drudgery and find the game hiding beneath.
Games are truly the spoonful of sugar that can help us clean the house, mow the lawn, buy the groceries, and commute to work.
Reason 4: Because Pills are Amazing and all, but...
Therapy is fantastic. Talk it out.
Psychological pharmaceuticals are game changers for some people. Do you. Get those pills.
But we don’t have to solely rely on therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists. Games give us the opportunity to practice improving our mental health on our own. It’s the homework to therapy’s
Games give us more hours of brain reshaping. And don’t you want the shapeliest brain on the block? One of the benefits of play is that it allows us to practice what goes down in the therapist's office.
Reason 5: Because you're no Spring Chicken, but that doesn't Mean your Brain has to be Done Learning
Speaking of reshaping our brains, playing games throughout the week also gives us the opportunity to learn new things.
The infant and toddler set always pulls focus when it comes to neural plasticity. Yes, their brains are developing more rapidly than will ever happen again in their lifetimes. I am not denying that this is a critical period for brain development. But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Whatever that means.
Science, her again, seems to be reaching a consensus that play is one of the critical ways to help infants and toddlers reach their motor, language, social, and emotional milestones. Fantastic. Love it.
But why wouldn’t that same sense of play help us improve in these same areas into adulthood?
The power of play is that the learning happens as a natural consequence of the playing. My daughter doesn’t say, “I wanna learn about cause and effect.” She says, “Slide, slide, I want slide.” But as a result of her playing on the slide, she learns all kinds of things like cause and effect. For example, when she holds her legs against the sides of the slide while going down and then flips around and falls, she is hopefully learning that holding your legs against the sides of the slide is, well, not the best move.
We play because it’s fun. The learning happens because we’re focused on the aim of the game. We’re invested. We’re committed.
Without this commitment, learning is daunting. We lose our sense of motivation, risk-taking, and investment that learning requires.
Think back to your school years. Which was your favorite: drilling times tables or playing that “around the world” game where you stood next to another kid and whoever got the multiplication problem correct faster moved onto the next kid’s desk, sort of a Round Robin of multiplication?
Obviously, “around the world” was way better than drilling times tables. It was fun. We all paid attention and learned because we were in it to win it.
We need to bring this same sense of play back to our adult lives.
Reason 6: Because Making Friends is not Getting any Easier
I used to be the life of the party. I would talk to strangers, make new friends, and dance right in the center of the room. Then I stopped drinking my face off and realized…
Meeting new people is hard.
Especially as we get older. College was the golden age of meeting and making new friends. What else did we have to do? We were all stuck on campus together. It was like a desert island but with learning. So we made friends like bosses.
Then we moved. We got jobs. Some of us got married and had kids. And it’s hard to make new friends when your two-year old is screaming that she wants crackers…like now!
Play helps us connect with people. Just like we did when we were little, play allows us to have fun together, release dopamine together, struggle together. The benefits of play are in those connections and reconnections, in building more joyful relationships with others.
Reason 7: Because you don't have Time to Meditate, plus it's Boring AF
Full disclosure: I actually like meditating. It’s helped me center and regulate emotions at various stages of my life.
But I often don’t have time for it.
Like right now. I don’t have time to take a shower in the morning. Toddlers don’t really understand that daddy or mommy needs to take 30 to take a relaxing shower in order to not smell like some creature from some deep lagoon. They want their cereal. They want their yogurt. Then they just keep wanting things pretty much for the rest of the day until they don’t want to go to bed. Good times.
So I have to fit my mindfulness into the day other ways.
For me, games are clutch here.
Games can help me calm down, help me enjoy the moment, and help me figure out how I’m currently feeling.
I can blow out pretend birthday candles or breathe along to a song to calm myself down. I can repeat a mantra or count the red cars that go by.
Or I could play copycat with my daughter or a friend to get in sync with them and enjoy the moment.
I can even have dance parties, play mirroring games, take a detour, or agree and add onto what others are saying to find the joy in each moment and become more positive, less judgmental, and more creative.
Games allow us to work on how we are maneuvering through our worlds and how we think about said worlds without it feeling like work. And you can add it into your day without setting aside a separate time for it.
Because Dolly Parton Says So
Dolly Parton once sang, “The day you’re born is the day you start to die.” Dolly Happy AF Parton! So I’m pretty sure it behooves us all to start making our dwindling days as fun as possible.
Are you waiting to land that perfect job…and then you’ll be happy?
Waiting until you meet that special someone…then you’ll totes be happy?
Waiting until you make more money? Have more time? Retire? Kids move out? Or just waiting because happiness and joy are not even on your radar these days?
We can all add play to our hectic, soul-crushing lives. You don’t need extra time or money or skills to play games. Just add them to your normal humdrum everyday routine to experience the benefits of play.
I’ve developed over 120 everyday games based on my research on how improv positively affects the brain. They are easy, silly, and can help us all begin to play our ways saner then we are today. Saner and happier and more connected with each other.
So start playing today. Dolly Parton says your very soul depends on it.