Discover the wellbeing benefits of adult play

By Kirsty Rigg,
updated on Nov 5, 2022

Discover the wellbeing benefits of adult play

Apparently, being playful and childish is the key to a long and happy life. We’ll take it!

Do you find yourself fighting ‘silly’, childish urges? Doodling a smiley face on the car window, or racing your (36-year-old) best bud to the top of the hill, cos’ the loser is a rotten egg? Well, don’t fight it! According to experts, engaging in adult play is more than just a giggle – it can cause changes in the brain which help improve our mental, emotional, and even physical health.

So, before you feel guilty about rearranging the fridge magnets to spell ‘bum’, or blowing a raspberry at your little niece or nephew, let’s take a look at the science behind play, and how it can transform how we feel and live.

Why do we lose our playfulness?

It’s no surprise that kids are one-upping us in the happiness department – as they jump around the garden with one finger up their nose and the other hand clutching a stolen tablespoon. So where does it all go wrong?

According to world-renowned therapist and author Marisa Peer, we never truly forget how to play, but society teaches us that it’s inappropriate after a certain age. Though the urges are there, we are accustomed to suppressing it, and acting in a safer, more ‘appropriate’ manner.

“Humans have a compelling need to find connections and avoid rejection, so they won’t do anything that could exclude them for being different,” she says.

“As a child heads towards their teens, they start to play with toys less, as they look to older children to see what is cool. Being accepted by their peers is so important to them that they will relinquish favourite toys simply to fit in.

“This is reinforced by adults telling youngsters to ‘grow up’, ‘stop being silly’, or ‘don’t be childish’ which contributes to our belief that playing and being playful, after a certain age, is inappropriate.”

Marisa strongly believes in overcoming the society’s discouragement from play, and tries to bring lightness and laughter into every day. She adds: “As a therapist, and a trainer of therapists, I find laughter very helpful. Encouraging people to play has its place in contributing to making steps towards positive mental wellbeing.”


The seriousness of play

But it’s not just a laughing matter. Experts say that playing can help people deal with mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety, and can even support those with trauma.

Creative arts therapist Dr Alison McClymont uses play to help treat trauma in adults. She says that feeding the urges to be playful can actually cause the brain to return to a child-like state, which helps us to access and resolve buried issues.

She says: “While, to some, this may sound ‘kooky’ or new age, play therapies for adults are empirically studied, and I have worked with extremely traumatised people whose only route to therapy was through artistic expression or play.

“The importance of play should not be overlooked; I have used it to treat psychosis and extreme forms of trauma. Creative arts therapy is even prescribed by the UK NICE [National Institute for Health and Care Excellence] guidelines as an optimal form of therapy for schizophrenia and ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder]”.

Wellbeing expert and author Dr Audrey Tang adds that although play is not the only route to improved mental health, it is certainly one way to get (or stay) emotionally healthy.

She says: “I wouldn’t necessarily say that play is the best way of addressing depression – in that we really don’t feel like playing when we’re down. But saying that, play takes many forms, and if it provides you the escapism, or the break in thinking that you need, this can improve your mood and motivation.

“Recognise what you enjoy when you go about your day (including play), and then identify if it energises you or relaxes you. When you are feeling low, choose one of your energisers, if anxious, choose a relaxer. A game of sudoku may be relaxing, while a sport may be energising,” explains Dr Tang.

Getting your play on

It turns out there are lots of types of play which can be implemented into daily life. Here are five examples:

Body play and movement

Zumba anyone? Getting your move on in a creative way (running for the bus doesn’t count) is a type of physical play that gets those feel-good chemicals going.

Social play

Gather the troops, share some jokes, and enjoy their company. It’s for your wellbeing!

Imaginative and pretend play

Ever find yourself putting on a silly voice or doing impressions? Do you like making up stories? Feel free to fool around with your partner, kids, and friends (maybe not your boss).

Storytelling-narrative play

Similar to the above, this is using your imagination to generate something make-believe that lets us momentarily escape from real life, and causes a feel-good reaction.

Creative play

Dust off that guitar, dig out the paintbrushes, or get yourself on that writing course you keep talking about. A creative outlet is a form of play, too!

Marisa Peer concludes: “When we act young by laughing, giggling, playing, dancing, being silly, making faces, or speaking in a silly voice, we behave in a youthful way and, if we do this often enough, we’ll start to feel and even look younger. You don’t need to be dictated to by the age on your birth certificate.”

Fun might just be our new form of healthcare. That’s advice we’re happy to take!

Mind games
Therapist and author Marisa Peer explains what actually happens in the brain when we play:

When we play, we feel happy and this releases endorphins, which improve our wellbeing and make us feel good about life.

Bonding with others:
Oxytocin is the bonding hormone – when we play together, we bond, and particularly when we laugh together.

Higher endorphin levels may also build our confidence. A connection to others through play, and that sense of belonging, further builds our confidence.

Any activity helps us sleep better, thanks to endorphins. What’s more, if we can play and take our mind off work or other issues, we are more likely to focus on happy things when we go to bed rather than letting our minds worry and become anxious.

Overall wellbeing:
Our stress hormones, like cortisol, diminish, which supports a sense of wellbeing, of feeling happy and making us more optimistic and outgoing. Studies have shown that without play, our brain can actually shrink, and laboratory rats who were not allowed to play died from having this innate need taken away from them.

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