When was the last time you did something playful? Not just to get fit, not as part of a creative project, and not as a host for your kid’s party, but simply for the sake of it? When it comes to playtime, the benefits are well-documented in terms of children’s cognitive and social development. Yet there seems to be an increasing interest in whether we can carry through the benefits of play into our adult lives. There is certainly an increased appetite for play in grown-up-land, with the proliferation of video games aimed at adults and play experiences popping up all over the UK (including everything from escape rooms to adult ball pits).
This has left us wondering whether extending playtime from our early years into our golden years is just a lucrative millennial gimmick, or whether it offers us a fun and easy way to take better care of our minds (and bodies) as we age.
Is adult playtime all just a load of… childsplay?!
Research now highlights that play is central to children’s social and cerebral development . Through creating and exploring, play enables kids to develop new capabilities, grow confidence and build the resilience they need to take on future challenges. In short, it’s heartily encouraged: aim for the moon on the swings, brew up witches potions using herbs from the garden, make yourself invisible playing hide and seek. But imagine an adult making their way to the front of the queue for the big slide and you know they’d be met with sneering glances and the sense that they’re spoiling the kids’ fun. But if we think about it - do we ever really stop finding slides fun or are we simply socialised out of playing in this childlike way as we age?
Psychiatrist Stuart Brown, president of the National Institute for Play, believes play is a central part of what makes us human. Brown has spent his career advocating for more playtime, but not just for children. Brown flips the discussion on the importance of play on its head; rather than asking how play is beneficial, he explores the bleak reality for those who were deprived of play in childhood and the detrimental impact this has on their social behaviour in adult life. Yet, Brown is keen to emphasise playfulness as a defining element of our human (and yes, adult) nature.
Whilst in childhood play is important for developing skills we need to survive independently in adulthood (problem-solving, memory, our ability to empathise to name a few), in our adult years, play takes on a different significance. Researchers found that adults who play reported lower levels of stress . The theory goes that a playful attitude helps to frame challenging situations in a humorous light, effectively allowing adult humans to develop resilience to psychological stressors both small (traffic) and big (loss) . So whilst in childhood we use play to learn, in adulthood play serves a more therapeutic function, potentially enabling us to reframe and recuperate from the many stressors in adult life.
Whilst there is still much research to be done into the different ways in which play can be used to help improve our wellbeing if it helps us feel good and stress-out less we say bring out the Bop-It!
So how can we bring more playfulness into our lives?
There is, of course, no one right way to play. As with most things, the divergence in our personalities manifests in different preferences when it comes to playing. In one study  researchers identified four different ways in which adults play:
1. Fooling around with friends, playing silly pranks and a bit of light-hearted teasing.
2. Being lighthearted and not worrying about the consequences of their behaviour.
3. Playing with thoughts and ideas.
4. Being whimsical and seeing the funny in small, everyday observations.
So, depending on what type of play you’re wanting more of in your life, you can try different approaches to find what suits your play personality. We recommend:
Try thinking what would kids do?
Ever seen children at the playground with their friends, there’s no holding back when it comes to silliness. Remember when you were younger and you jumped out from behind the bathroom door or raced your sibling to the other side of the park? When it comes to playing, take a leaf out of their book - you might just need to find bigger hiding spots!
If you want to worry less and enjoy things more, you’ll need to work on being present and fully in the moment. The more adult practices of mindfulness, meditation and breathing exercises can all help us be more present.
When we get stuck on a thought or idea, turning it on its head can be a good way to move forward. Gaining fresh insight by talking to different people, imagining how someone you admire would approach the issue, or using a tool like an idea generator can all help bring that sense of playfulness into your thought process.
No one brings humour to the hum-drum of everyday life better than observational comedians. Try going to a stand-up gig or seeking out your favourite comedian on Netflix. The way they reframe things we do on autopilot; the school run, job applications, awkward encounters on the bus, can definitely help you to see the funny side of those experiences in your own life.
Pick your play: these effects of playing sound more than appealing to us, whether you are a perfect prankster or still trying to let loose a little, we think we should all factor in some more playtime! Break up your working day with some back garden races or kicking a ball around, have a go on the swings in the playground next time you pass one, you could even organise a games night with friends now that we’re allowed to see our people again. Feel the stress melt away as you get outside to play!
The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds (2007). American Academy of Pediatrics.
The playful advantage: How playfulness enhances coping with stress (2013). Leisure Sciences.
The well-being of playful adults: Adult playfulness, subjective well-being, physical well-being, and the pursuit of enjoyable activities (2013). European Journal of Humour.
A new structural model for the study of adult playfulness: Assessment and exploration of an understudied individual differences variable (2017). ResearchGate.