How to play… as a grown-up

Research is uncovering the benefits of play for adults, but with ‘playtime’ a thing of the distant past, how can we rediscover it in the seriousness – and busyness – of adulthood?

How to play

For me, it was always Barbie. From the age of five through to later in my adolescence than I like to admit, I’d spend hours spreading the carpet of my bedroom with heavily accessorized scenes in which Barbie (or Barbies, I had about a dozen) and Ken (I had one – quite the polyamorist, on later reflection) partook in all kinds of dramatic domesticity. Oh, to be a fly on the wall of Barbie’s Fold ‘n Fun House! But, as young adulthood – and acne – settled in, Barbie was demoted from leading lady to occasional cameo, and eventually killed off from my life’s narrative.

There were psychological reasons behind our split. Early teens see friendships (of the non-imaginary variety) coming to the fore of our fixations. Our ability to form abstract thoughts– the kind that distract one from trivial tinkering with toys – improves, while the stresses of study, and then work, relegate ‘fun’ right off our to-do lists.

It’s a crying shame – what with play, long lauded as essential for social and physical development in children, proving also beneficial for adults. Linked tostress reduction, boosting creativity and an overall feeling of youthfulness (as Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw put it, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing”), play can make us happier, healthier humans. But while the benefits are clear, in theory, what of the practice? Once the Tonka Trucks and Troll dolls are packed away, how do we play?

By definition, to play is to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose. Jennifer Theriault [MD8] , a psychotherapist who works with children, adolescents and adults, says that it’s “intrinsically motivated” – something we are naturally inclined to do, rather something we feel we should do. “The difference between somebody who says, ‘I’m going to go out and ride my bike because it’s good for me’, and someone who goes bike riding for play, is that their motivation is not something external,” she explains. “It’s not to be healthy, to lose weight or to get in shape. Their motivation is based on joy and pleasure.”

The question is: are we playing, or just pretending? How do we differentiate the former from the latter? “I think it takes looking inside ourselves and asking: What is it that gives me great joy in life?” Jennifer recently told her daughter she was going to “play” at a friend’s house. “My daughter asked, ‘Are you having a play date?’ And I said, ‘Yes. When we get together and we sit and talk, that’s playing – for us.” Jennifer’s daughter said that sounded like a terrible play date. Her mom responded: “Yes, to you, because you’re nine. But to a grown-up, getting to just sit and chat with a friend is playing. I don’t need to do that – it doesn’t necessarily benefit anybody else – but it benefits me because it’s purely for my enjoyment.”

Echoing recent research, Jennifer believes there are many benefits to playing as fully-fledged adults – even in the more child-like sense of the act. “Playing games and doing new activities really reminds our body and mind to keep functioning and keep learning,” she says (indeed, an Australian study found playing video games can help fight dementia and manage pain for people over 65). “Play can be revitalizing and energizing. When we take time to do things that are just simply joyful, we really do end up having more energy for the things that we need to do that may not be so fun.”

So, how can we incorporate play into our lives without it becoming just another chore? “When you feel pressure to do it, I think it takes away from some of the enjoyment,” says Jennifer, who admits that, while we’re out of practice, fun might need to be forced. “My husband might say to me, ‘Let’s go to a movie’, and I don’t even feel like getting up. But I know I love that feeling of going to a movie, when the lights go down and I have my popcorn. Sometimes it’s just a matter of remembering how you felt the last time you did it.”

For the time-poor among us (ahem… every mom) Jennifer says a playful approach to life is a good place to start. Even something as simple as drawing a smiley face on the steamy bathroom mirror after your shower, starting a tickle fight with your partner, putting on some music or getting creative with magnetic poetry on your fridge can inject a little lightness into your day. After all, why should our kids have all the fun?