Why we all need to play more

When was the last time you truly played? Luciana Bellini meets positive-psychology play consultant Jeff Harry, to discuss why we all need to play more and find our inner child…

“We all need to play more,” muses Jeff Harry, after asking me when was the last time I played. And, I don’t mean the last game of tennis with friends, or office football match, he added – but the last time you let loose and allowed your inner child to run free; the last time you abandoned yourself to play, like children do.

If you’re anything like me, the concept of play is something you left behind in your childhood and is something you make little time for in your busy, hectic grown-up life. But studies reveal that connecting with your inner child and engaging in play, just for the sake of it, is something we should all be doing as adults, thanks to its myriad benefits to our physical and mental health.

‘As adults, we are constantly being told to be perfect, and I see play as the opposite of perfection,’ says Jeff Harry, a positive-psychology play consultant. ‘We are constantly hearing negative voices in our head and in the media telling us not to be ourselves. Play connects us back to who we are. Play connects us back to our inner child, who reminds us how to embrace our whole selves, including all the imperfections and flaws.’

Play is similar to meditation in that it helps us focus on the moment and reset our perpetually exhausted adult minds. Being present is something that doesn’t come easy to most of us, but fully engaging in an act of play forces you to focus on the task at hand and nothing else.

‘Philosophers from Plato to Jean Piaget to Friedrich Schiller have all acknowledged that play is the catalyst for all art, invention, new connections and innovation,’ writes author Meredith Sinclair in her book Well Played: The Ultimate Guide to Awakening Your Family’s Playful Spirit. ‘Play ignites our minds in ways only it can.’

A study of 898 University of Illinois students showed that frequent play markedly reduces perceived stress levels. Another study at the University of Zurich found a correlation of around 18 per cent between the level of sociable, playful activities and overall life satisfaction. And while experts warn that these studies aren’t perfect – it’s difficult to work out exactly how play affects a person – it’s becoming apparent that harnessing the power of play can have significant benefits for adults.

‘We are tapping into this at this precise moment because, during the pandemic, we got bored,’ says Jeff Harry. ‘We had time to reflect on what brings us joy, who we are, our inner child and playing more, what type of life we want to live. You saw more adults playing during this time than at any other time in the twentieth century because we had that moment of pause, and that has continued.’

So how can you engage in play meaningfully, as an adult? First, think about activities you enjoyed as a child. If you loved Play-Doh, you might take up a pottery class, or learn how to make bread. If you were that kid who was always scrambling up trees, try indoor rock climbing or abseiling. If you loved drawing or doodling, buy an easel and a set of paints, or spend your downtime filling in an adult colouring book.

Engaging with play means not focusing on the outcome, as you would in most sports and fitness activities. A bike ride to burn calories doesn’t count as play, there are ways to use exercise as play. Rather than thinking of the activity as a chore, think of playful ways to exercise. Instead of swimming laps, have a diving contest with your friends, or replace weekly runs with a game of tag or ultimate Frisbee.

‘I suggest people get bored,’ says Harry. ‘Get bored the way they used to as a kid. What does that mean tangibly? Stop binge-watching Netflix, doom-scrolling, looking at emails or inundating yourself with information. We get more information in a day than people in the 1800s got in their entire lifetime. When you allow yourself to be bored, even if it’s just for five minutes, your mind gets quiet enough to hear your inner child, and your inner child starts to give you suggestions that make you nerv-cited (nervous and excited). And that is when you can fall into flow.’

Perhaps most importantly, you need to get into the play mindset. In his book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, Dr Stuart Brown defines this as a ‘state of mind that one has when absorbed in an activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of sense of time’. An an example, Brown says that two people could be throwing a ball back and forth, but one person could be playing while the other person isn’t.

Instead of seeing play as something silly and trivial that’s solely for children, it’s time we understood its power and used it to our full advantage. ‘Play isn’t a frivolous act, but one of the most powerful ways we can communicate our love for life and build some of our strongest connections with each other,’ says Harry. ‘It’s where humanity can be built in the most organic way – on the playground, and that playground just happens to be Earth.’

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