What is Adult Play?
Adult play is a time to forget about work and commitments, and to be social in an unstructured, creative way. The focus of play is on the actual experience, not on accomplishing any goal. There doesn’t need to be any point to the activity beyond having fun and enjoying yourself.
Play could be simply sharing jokes with a colleague, throwing a frisbee on the beach, playing charades, dressing up for a fancy-dress party, playing ‘Marco Polo’ in the swimming pool, building a snowman, playing ‘fetch’ with a dog, or going for a bike ride with a friend with no destination in mind.
Remember that there is a big difference between being ‘childlike’ and ‘childish’. Being playful is about being childlike and has a lot to do with getting in touch with your Child Ego State or ‘inner child’. For more information about the Child Ego State read my article: Transactional Analysis – Part I (The Masks We Wear)
It’s interesting to note that in most non-human mammals, play occurs almost entirely among the young of the species and clearly seems to serve the function of skill learning and practice – to learn and practice the very skills that they must develop in order to survive into adulthood and thrive and reproduce. Predators practice predation, as when tiger clubs stalk and pounce on bugs, wind-blown leaves, and each other. Prey animals practice getting away from predators, as when zebra colts dodge and dart in their playful frolicking and endless games of tag. Young males of many species practice fighting, taking turns pinning one another in their species-specific ways and getting out of pinned positions. Young females of at least some species practice nurturance, in playful care of young.
We humans, however, have inherited the basic youthful play characteristics of our animal ancestors, but in the course of our biological and cultural evolution have elaborated upon them and created new functions. Playfulness in humans does not end when adulthood begins and it serves many functions beyond the learning of species-specific skills.
Playfulness is a Sign of Emotional Health
Playfulness comes with the health of the nervous system. The healthier we become emotionally, the easier it is to play, because the healthier we become the more we are present - and play is about being present. It's that quality of being ‘in the moment’ that makes play possible - you can't play at any time but right now!
What are the Benefits of Adult Play?
We know that play is crucial for a child’s development and most people would never question that fact, but few people realise that it is also beneficial for adults and can improve health, relationships and work productivity.
Play and Your Health
Spending a fortune on medical bills? Make time to play more and you will save yourself a packet, because play can:
Relieve stress – Play is fun and can trigger the release of endorphins, which are the body’s natural ‘feel-good’ chemicals. Endorphins promote an overall sense of well-being and can even temporarily relieve pain.
Decrease depression – The social interaction of playing with family and friends can help ward off stress and depression.
Improve brain function – Playing chess, completing puzzles, or pursuing other brain-challenging fun activities can improve brain function and help prevent memory problems.
Stimulate the mind and boost creativity – Young children often learn best when they are playing. That principle applies to adults, as well. We learn new tasks better when it’s fun and when we are in a relaxed and playful mood. Play can also stimulate imagination, helping you to adapt to change and problem solve better.
Increase optimism – Being more playful will make you look at the world with more optimism.
Keep you feeling young and energetic – Play can boost energy and vitality and even improve your resistance to disease, helping you feel your best. In the words of George Bernard Shaw:
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
Play and Your Relationships
Play is one of the most effective tools for keeping relationships fresh and exciting. Playing together, for the pure fun of it, brings joy, vitality and resilience to relationships. It can also heal resentments, disagreements and hurts. Being playful is a great emotional resource. In fact, research has shown that the couple that plays together stays together. (The same is said of couples that pray together).
By making a conscious effort to incorporate more humour and play into your daily interactions, you can improve the quality of your love relationships, as well as your connections with co-workers, family members and friends in the following ways:
- Play helps develop trust – Through regular play, we learn to trust one another and feel safe. Trust enables us to work together, open ourselves to intimacy and try new things.
- Play helps develop and improve social skills – Social skills are learned in the give and take of play. During childhood play, kids learn about verbal communication, body language, boundaries, cooperation, and teamwork. In adulthood, you continue to refine these skills through play and playful communication.
- Play helps teach cooperation with others – Play is a powerful catalyst for positive socialisation. Through play, children learn how to ‘play nicely’ with others; to work together, follow mutually agreed upon rules, and socialize in groups. As adults, you can continue to use play to break down barriers to cooperation.
- Play can help heal emotional wounds – As adults, when we play together, we engage in exactly the same patterns of behavior that positively shape the brains of children. These same playful behaviours that predict emotional health in children can also lead to positive changes in adults. If an emotionally-insecure person plays with a secure partner, for example, it can help replace negative beliefs and behaviours with positive ones.
- Play helps improve relationships and connection to others – Sharing laughter and fun can foster empathy, compassion and intimacy with others. Play doesn’t have to be a specific activity; it can also be a state of mind. Developing a playful nature can help you loosen up in stressful situations, break the ice with strangers, make new friends, and form new business relationships.
- Play can help develop relationships – In new relationships, play and humour can be an effective tool not just for attracting the other person but also for overcoming any awkwardness or embarrassment that arises during the dating and getting-to-know-you process. In longer-term relationships, play can keep things exciting, fresh, and vibrant, and deepen intimacy. It can also help you overcome differences and the tiny aggravations that can build up over time.
“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”
Plato, Greek philosopher, 427–347 BC
Play and Your Work
Success at work doesn't depend on the amount of time you work; it depends upon the quality of your work. And the quality of your work is highly dependent on your well-being.
Taking the time to replenish yourself through play is one of the best things you can do for your career. When the project you're working on hits a serious glitch, taking some time out to play and have a few laughs does a lot more than take your mind off the problem. When you play, you engage the creative side of your brain and silence your negative ‘head talk’ – that little voice in your head that criticises you and censors your thoughts and ideas. By engaging your creativity and silencing your head talk, you can often see the problem in a new light and generate fresh and creative solutions.
Many dot com companies have recognised the link between productivity and a fun work environment. Some companies encourage play and creativity by offering art or yoga classes, throwing regular parties, providing games such as foosball or ping pong, or encouraging recess-like breaks during the workday for employees to play and let off steam. These companies know that more play at work results in more productivity, higher job satisfaction, greater workplace morale, and a decrease in staff turnover and absenteeism.
If you’re fortunate enough to work for such a company, embrace the culture. If your company lacks the play culture, however, you can still inject your own sense of play into breaks and lunch hours. Keep a camera or sketch pad on hand and take creative breaks where you can. Joke with your colleagues during coffee breaks; relieve stress at lunch by playing games, cards or completing word puzzles together. Keep tactile puzzles on the conference room table and tackle them every now and again. This kind of play can strengthen the bond you have with your colleagues as well as help improve your job performance.
Playing at work increases productivity because it:
- Increases energy and prevents burnout
- Keeps you functional when under stress
- Encourages teamwork
- Helps you see problems in new ways
- Triggers creativity and innovation
- Refreshes your mind and body
- Relieves monotony and boredom for people with mundane jobs
How do we Create Opportunities to Play?
You can play on your own or with a pet, but for the most benefit, play should involve at least one other person, away from the sensory-overload of electronic gadgets.
Start by developing your playful side.It’s never too late to develop your playful, humorous side. If you find yourself limiting your playfulness, it's possible that you are self-conscious and concerned about what others will think when you attempt to be light-hearted. Fearing rejection or ridicule when attempting to be playful is an understandable fear, but it's important to point out that as a child, you were naturally playful; you didn't worry about the reactions of other people. You can reclaim your inner child by setting aside regular, quality playtime. The more you play, joke, and laugh the easier it becomes.
Try to clear your schedule for an afternoon or evening, for example, and then turn off your phone, TV, computer, and other devices. Give yourself permission to do whatever you want for the time you’ve allotted. Be spontaneous, set aside your inhibitions and try something fun, something you haven’t done since you were a kid, perhaps. And enjoy the change of pace. Here are some suggestions:
- Host a regular game night with friends – Getting people together for a game night, or spontaneously introducing a game to your friends when you're together, is a great way to make your social life a bit different and more playful.
- Arrange play nights out – Invite work colleagues to go bowling, play pool or miniature golf, or sing karaoke.
- Schedule time at the beach or in a park – Invite friends to throw a frisbee, play a ball game or fly a kite.
- Get involved in more sports – Playing sports without taking them seriously is a great way to be more playful and to spend more time with your friends. Playing more sports makes you less concerned about work and will make you a more playful person overall.
- Play with a pet – If you have a dog or a cat or know a friend who does, then spend more time playing with animals. Whether you're walking a dog or tossing a ball to it, or playing around with your cat and a feather toy, playing with animals alters your perspective and makes you approach life in a more playful and less structured way.
- Surround yourself with playful people – They’ll help loosen you up and are more likely to support your efforts to play and have fun.
- Dance – Take up dance classes or just go clubbing with your friends. You absolutely do not have to be a good dancer to be playful in this way! It's not about looking good - it's about feeling good. The more you dance, the more you're able to let loose, feel relaxed and generally let go of your inhibitions, the more playful you'll become.
- Throw a costume party – Wearing a costume helps people let go of their identities and be more playful in their approach to life.
- Tell jokes anywhere and everywhere – Joking with strangers at a bus stop or while waiting in a queue will make the time pass quicker and you may even spark up new friendships.
- Laugh at yourself – Being able to laugh at yourself around others is an important way to be playful. If you're always so serious about yourself and can't step back and admit when you've made a fool of yourself, made a silly comment, or just did something unintentionally hilarious, then you'll struggle to be playful. Being able to laugh at yourself will also help you relax, which will make you more playful.
- Laugh by yourself – Laughter can be enjoyed alone as well as in good company. Do whatever you need to do to make yourself laugh. Watch funny YouTube clips, listen to comedy on the radio, and read the comics section of newspapers. Being able to laugh on your own will make you a more playful, fun-loving person, and it will make it easier for you to laugh with others.
For more about the benefits of laughter and how to laugh more read my article: Love to Laugh, Laugh to Live
- Smile more – Simply making the effort to smile more, whether you're by yourself, walking past strangers, sitting in class, or hanging out with old friends, will make you a much more playful person who is receptive to all of the positive energy in the world. You can even smile when nobody's around. Smiling by yourself will also put you in a more positive and more playful mindset.