Acclaimed director and writer Frank Capra once stated, “Play has been man’s most useful preoccupation.” Indeed, play is one of the most misunderstood and underrated components of human development, and it serves a vital purpose in young and old alike.
Conquering Common Stigmas Associated With Play
“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” ― Plato
While play is generally commended among children, adults often face a great deal of needless backlash for recreational activities. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of play is often questioned by society as a meaningless pursuit with no real gain.
Science, however, refutes such beliefs and points to countless research studies that support the notion that play is not meaningless at all. In fact, playtime increases human intelligence and socialization, leaving us better equipped to handle the daily challenges of life.
Proven Cognitive, Physical and Psychological Benefits of Play
Scientific studies throughout the years have demonstrated numerous cognitive benefits to play, including the following:
• Increased memory
• Growth stimulation of the brain’s cerebral cortex
• Release of the chemical BDNF, which boosts production of brain cells
• Increased academic focus in students
• Increased language skills
• Improved creativity and critical thinking skills
Play also is associated with physical benefits:
• Play boosts motor skills
• Play reduces stress
• Play increases energy
• Play increases stamina and endurance
In addition, play is extremely helpful psychologically:
• Play strengthens relationships
• Play improves communication
• Play increases self-esteem
• Play decreases anxiety and depression
Effect of Play on Children
“Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.” ― Kay Redfield Jamison
Research studies consistently support the known benefits of play for children. Recess and general play activities are associated with the following benefits:
• Critical thinking
• Better physical health
Teachers are encouraged to allow recess breaks, as these are proven to help children succeed academically and increase their attention and focus in the classroom.
Types of Play Among Children
“Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.” ― Joseph Chilton Pearce
In a report compiled by Dr. David Whitebread, a senior lecturer in psychology and education at the University of Cambridge, U.K., five specific types of play among children are identified and discussed.
1. Physical Play
This type of play is seen in reptiles, amphibians and practically all mammals, and it includes three primary types: active play, rough and tumble, and fine motor practice. Active play consists of solitary activities like running, jumping and climbing, while rough and tumble is play that involves “roughhousing” contact with siblings, parents and friends. Fine motor practice, on the other hand, is comprised of motor activities such as sewing, painting or construction. Physical play logically assists in whole body and hand-eye coordination, development of motor skills, and increased strength and physicality. Rough-and-tumble play specifically helps children with aggression control.
2. Play With Objects
Playing with objects goes hand in hand with other types of play, and it allows children to create scenarios and creative concepts in their heads. This play type can improve motor skills while also encouraging critical thinking, observation and investigation.
3. Symbolic Play
Symbolic play references symbolic communication such as art, language, music, writing, arithmetic, etc. Play revolving around these symbols is highly helpful in both cognitive and emotional development, and children who are exposed to symbolic play often excel in creativity, communication, literacy, social interaction, memory, emotional awareness and even helpful behaviors.
4. Pretend/Socio-Dramatic Play
This form of play, which includes video games, allows children to retreat into a fictional world and play characters, often with other children. While video games have suffered scrutiny and criticism, research shows that children who participate in socio-dramatic play are more sociable and fare better in group situations. Self-restraint and self-regulation are also improved from this play form.
5. Games With Rules
Children actually enjoy rules so much that if no rules are present, they’ll often create their own. This type of game play is associated with better socialization, improved critical thinking and empathy. Rules also enable children to master group situations and handle conflict.
Teenagers and the Gaming Phenomenon
“A game is an opportunity to focus our energy, with relentless optimism, at something we’re good at (or getting better at) and enjoy. In other words, gameplay is the direct emotional opposite of depression,” says Jane McGonigal, author of Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.
Perhaps the most misunderstood and vilified form of play is gaming, which is primarily associated with teenagers and young adults. Video games have garnered a great deal of negative attention due to school shootings and violent content, but research actually shows a more beneficial effect of this phenomenon.
Children who play video games for a few hours a week (as opposed to not at all or excessively) are better adjusted and have fewer conduct problems. They even demonstrate more compassion and empathy – a stark difference to the image of gamers in the media. Studies even link gaming to better motor skills and higher self-esteem across all ages of video gamers.
Adults and Recreational Play Activities
“My childhood may be over, but that doesn’t mean playtime is.” ― Ron Olson
While most people agree that play is helpful to children, adults can also greatly benefit from adding play to their lives, particularly as both a stress-relieving activity and a supplement to work environments. Adults who regularly participate in recreational activities reap benefits such as higher self-esteem, increased energy, better health and improved relationships.
Playing at Work
“You’ve achieved success in your field when you don’t know whether what you’re doing is work or play.” ― Warren Beatty
Managers are wise to incorporate play into the office. Not only does play reduce employee stress, but it also boosts creativity, rejuvenates both the mind and body, builds teamwork and prevents burnout. Employees who are more energized and creative are simply happier and more productive at their jobs, and an office environment that supports this will inevitably lead to a better team attitude and increased group productivity.
Managers can enable employee play by allowing for the following:
• Social interaction throughout the work day
• Work parties, contests and competitions
• Regular breaks
• Break rooms
• Team projects
• Games and activities incorporated into meetings and conferences
• Exercise rooms
Many managers may be leery of such unconventional methods, but employee morale is boosted by integrating games and activities into the work atmosphere. For introverted employees, group interaction is best kept optional so as not to cause anxiety. Solitary games or puzzles in the conference room or break room, however, make excellent activities for introverted types.
Benefits of Parents Playing With Children
“The playing adult steps sideward into another reality; the playing child advances forward to new stages of mastery.” ― Erik H. Erikson
Adults who play with their children are better bonded with them, and both parent and child reap the rewards of the play activity. Children who have involved and interactive parents have higher self-esteem, fewer mood disorders and better academic performance. In a society that is overwhelmed by the epidemic of childhood obesity, play is even more encouraged in helping children stay active and healthy. Parents can lead by example with physical exercise and cooking activities, therefore helping the entire family stay committed to a healthier lifestyle.
Play for Seniors
“Someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” ― C.S. Lewis
The elderly population can especially benefit from play. While this demographic may be less able to handle physical play than other ages, the benefits of social activity are numerous:
• Reduced risk of cardiovascular problems, cancer, osteoporosis and arthritis
• Reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease
• Lower blood pressure
• Reduced risk of mental health issues like depression
• Less social isolation
• Increased energy
• Higher self-esteem
The long-term care industry’s awareness of these benefits has led to the integration of daily activities for residents as a way of boosting morale and overall health. Social games such as Bingo do more than occupy time; they greatly improve the quality of life for seniors and vulnerable adults.
Incorporating Play Into an Adult Lifestyle
“Deep meaning lies often in childish play.”― Johann Friedrich von Schille
There are several methods through which adults can incorporate play into their lives. Including friends and colleagues is a fun way to build social connectedness among extroverts, while solitary pursuits are especially beneficial to introverts.
Some ideas for incorporating play into an adult routine include:
• Hosting a game night
• Scheduling vacation time
• Playing with animals
• Volunteering with children
• Attending comedy shows
• Starting a new hobby
• Participating in a sport
• Playing video or computer games
The positive results of intentional play are astounding and well-documented. No matter your age, anyone and everyone can greatly benefit from play activities. In a society so determined to work hard, we have undervalued the vital role that play contributes to our well-being. Its addition to our lifestyles may just prove itself the key to increased happiness and overall quality of life.