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The Power of Play

by Tom Lowrey, Education Assistant

“Necessity may be the mother of invention,
but play is certainly the father.”
-Roger von Oech

Okay, raise your hand if you played with your mashed potatoes when you were a kid. Did you create mountains that spewed gravy lava? Did anyone ever tell you to stop playing with your food? Do you remember when the neighborhood kids got together at the park and played Red Rover, or used pieces of wood as bases for kickball? Did you dress up in makeshift costumes and act out goofy little dramas? Did you make snow forts in winter and tree-branch forts in summer? Play frisbee with your dog? Go on a scavenger hunt? Tinker with an engine?
Did the day come when you stopped playing… when you got so busy doing your job or raising a family that you decided that engaging in play, for you at least, was a waste of time?

Well, there are a lot of studies out there that say it’s time for you to get back in the game! Researcher Stuart Brown has a great TED Talk entitled “Play is more than just fun.”

“The opposite of play is not work,” says Brown. “It’s depression. And I think if you think about life without play — no humor, no flirtation, no movies, no games, no fantasy … Try and imagine a culture or a life, adult or otherwise without play. And the thing that’s so unique about our species is that we’re really designed to play through our whole lifetime.

“Nothing lights up the brain like play. Three-dimensional play fires up the cerebellum, puts a lot of impulses into the frontal lobe — the executive portion — helps contextual memory be developed, and — and, and, and. So what I would encourage on an individual level to do, is to explore backward as far as you can go to the clearest, joyful, playful image that you have, whether it’s with a toy, on a birthday or on a vacation. And begin to build from the emotion of that into how that connects with your life now.”

Anthropologist Isabel Behncke says that play “increases creativity and resilience, and it’s all about the generation of diversity — diversity of interactions, diversity of behaviors, diversity of connections… Play is the glue that binds us together.”

Play is not just a pastime activity; it can serve as an important tool in numerous aspects of daily life. Not only does play promote and aid in physical development (such as hand-eye coordination), but it also aids in cognitive development and social skills, and can even act as a stepping stone into the world of integration, which can be a very stressful process.

Although adults who engage in excessive amounts of play may find themselves described as “childish” or “young at heart” by less playful adults, play is an important activity, regardless of age. Creativity and happiness can result from adult play, where the objective can be more than fun alone, as in the adult expression of the arts, or curiosity-driven science. Some adult “hobbies” are examples of such creative play. In creative professions, such as design, playfulness can remove more serious attitudes (such as shame or embarrassment) that impede brainstorming or artistic experimentation in design.

“NASA and Boeing,” says Stuart Brown, “before they will hire a research and development problem solver — even if they’re summa cum laude from Harvard or Cal Tech — if they haven’t fixed cars, haven’t done stuff with their hands early in life, playing with their hands, they can’t problem-solve as well. So play is practical, and it’s very important.”
Older adults often favor activities that encourage mental and physical fitness, incorporate past interests, have some level of competition, and foster a sense of belonging. Researchers investigating play in older adults are also interested in the benefits of technology and video games as therapeutic tools. Studies show these outlets can lower the risk of developing particular diseases, reduce feelings of social isolation and stress, as well as promote creativity and the maintenance of cognitive skills.

The ability to incorporate play into one’s routine is important because these activities allow participants to express creativity, improve verbal and non-verbal intelligence as well as enhance balance. Many scientific studies conclude that a moderate level of play has numerous positive outcomes in the lives of older people.

Are you spending enough time playing? If not, here are some tips for increasing the fun in your life:

  • Set the goal of playing more. Start by setting a goal to have more fun. When we think of setting goals we usually think of serious things, such as losing weight, quitting smoking, making more money, or starting a small business. However, the goal of having more fun is just as important as those more adult-sounding goals. After all, what’s the point of being thin, having more money, and having your own business if you’re not enjoying yourself?
  • Put fun in your schedule. If you don’t schedule something, it’s unlikely to happen. Therefore, if you want to play more and have more fun, you have to schedule it. You might want to try things like gardening, corn-hole, art, live music, playing with pets, board games, and hobbies. And when this Covid craziness is all done, visit the local Community Center, or (ta-dah) your friendly neighborhood Activity and Dining Center.
  • Hang out with a kid. Little kids innately know how to play and have fun.
    Spend more time with fun people! If you need to relearn how to relax, be more spontaneous, laugh more, and simply be more willing to play, look for someone who’s already doing these things. Then, follow their lead.

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
-George Bernard Shaw

And when nobody’s looking… go ahead and play with your mashed potatoes!

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