The Importance of Play -- For Grown Ups
“Play is the pleasure of being inventive, mischievous, imaginative, and trying something new. Why do we play? Because it helps us grow—and because it’s fun.” — Ester Perel
A few weeks ago in July, I took some time off and traveled to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. My family and I had the whole week off to relax, enjoy the beautiful scenery, and savor the fact that it could be the middle of summer and also 72 degrees. A few days into our vacation, my husband and I marveled at how easy the week felt and discussed how we could bring that ease into our everyday routines after we returned home.
This really got me thinking, how could we bring in the more relaxed feel of being on vacation into the everyday? Of course, it is going to be easy to feel a sense of freedom and release during time off, when there is no agenda. When we are no longer beholden to our to-do lists for work or chores for the house. Waking up everyday with something to look forward to, not to mention the picturesque setting. But how could we incorporate this once we returned from vacation and had to face the piling up of laundry and unread emails?
I was then reminded of an idea from Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. In guiding her readers through the process of connecting to their more creative and authentic selves, Julia talks about the importance of setting aside time each week for what she calls an artist date. Julia describes this time as an excursion or “play date,” where individuals can nourish themselves and refill the well, so to speak, through the gift of time and doing something enjoyable. In other words, a mini-vacation.
The more I thought about this, the more it made sense to me. We know the importance of time spent in play for children. From the earliest ages, connecting to imagination and creativity through play helps with brain development and learning through the strengthening of physical, mental, and emotional connection between children and the world around them. So why should these benefits stop as we get older? The responsibilities and thus obstacles to play may increase with age, but so do the advantages. It is because our lives get busier and more complicated as we move forward in life that it becomes all the more essential to carve out this kind of quality time for ourselves.
It is because our lives get busier and more complicated as we move forward in life that it becomes all the more essential to carve out this kind of quality time for ourselves.
But then what does the act of play look like for adults? For the answer to this, I kept coming back to my recent vacation and the things I did as a guide. Play can be anything that captures our full attention, anything that brings us into a flow state of being completely focused on the task at hand and thus letting go of everything else that typically fills the mind. Play can be anything that we do solely for ourselves and no one else. It has no agenda, no expectation to get somewhere or accomplish something. And maybe most importantly, play is anything that is fun, anything we do for the pure enjoyment of doing it and no other reason. With this in mind, play is most likely something we do that is completely different from how we usually spend our time.
Play is most likely something we do that is completely different from how we usually spend our time.
In a New York Times article from 2020, Meredith Sinclair, former schoolteacher and author of Well Played: The Ultimate Guide to Awakening Your Family’s Playful Spirit, describes play as, “doing something for yourself that's in the moment. Most everything we do is for other people . . . Play feels silly, unproductive and time-consuming. But this is precisely why we should make more time for it.” The article's author, Kristin Wong, goes on to say, "play is similar to meditation in that it helps you focus on where you're at in the moment and reset your busy, perpetually exhausted adult mind."
How Do We Connect With Play as Adults?
For some of us, we may be so far removed from this idea of play, that we can be hard pressed to think of anything to do that is playful, let alone find the time to do it. Thus, thinking of specific actions of play that we truly connect with may involve some reflection and a little bit of time travel.
One helpful way to brainstorm ideas is to think back to when you were younger and answer the following questions:
What did you enjoy doing as a child?
What captured your complete attention?
What made you loose track of time?
What made you laugh?
What made you feel free?
Julia Cameron offers some similar exercises for reflection in The Artist’s Way:
What are alternative lives you can imagine living at your current age?
If you had five other lives to lead, what would you do in each of them? (Hint: The point of these lives is to have fun in them.)
What are things you hope to do as and older, retired adult?
Think, “If I were 65 and had money…” and list out five postponed pleasures.
As you look over the answer to these questions, what do you notice? Do you see any similarities in the specific activities that come to mind? Are there any themes that arise in how the activities would lead you to feel? Do they lean toward the creative and introspective or the adventurous and physically active? Are they done individually or with others? How can you use your answers to plan your time for play?
The idea is to use these questions to create a more vivid picture of what actions may promote this sense of play for you. For example, a love of building things as a child may tell you you enjoy working with your hands. Or, choosing an alternative life as a musician may spark the idea to take guitar lessons. The wish to travel to different countries in retirement may lead to spending time learning a new language.
What I tend to use as a guide is how the action leads me to feel. For example, I like to set aside time to create artwork with the sole intent of exploring new materials and techniques. Making art has long been something that can capture my full attention in the moment and help everything else melt away. The feeling that often comes from this resulting mental state is relief. When the weather is nice, I love riding my bike because of the feeling of freedom it creates. And every so often, I like to try something new for the thrill that comes from novelty and adventure, which has me currently researching where I can learn to paddle board.
Why Make Time for Play?
So, when we feel overwhelmed and strapped for time, why do this? Why set aside something as precious and valuable as our time for these moments of play?
To Connect to the Moment: Play naturally brings focused attention to the present moment. It can thus help you connect with and practice mindful attention in a way that is more accessible than sitting still in formal meditation.
To Practice Self-Compassion: By setting aside this time, you are prioritizing your own health and wellbeing. You are giving yourself permission to care for and nourish yourself in different ways, something that can paradoxically give you the energy later on to care for others.
To Practice Letting Go: Play helps us let go of the mindset of results. Perhaps the most important part of taking time to play is the intention behind these moments we schedule. It is not so much about striving to be a better you or even improving your health and wellbeing (while this can be a happy byproduct). If this is the motivation, the hour may become just another thing to cross off your to-do list. Instead, it is more about coming to the action with the intention of spending time in pure enjoyment and knowing that this in itself is enough.
In other words, it is not about biking because you want to loose weight and strengthen your muscles or even because you want to arrive at a particular destination. It is about taking the time to bike, because it is fun. Because, it brings a smile to your face, and for those 20 minutes, maybe you can feel free.
Interested in Learning More?
For related articles visit HeartSpace Wellness blog posts "The Benefits of Mindfulness, Art Making, & Art Therapy" and "Recovering and Reconnecting: Finding Our Creativity After the Pandemic."
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