Why Grownups Need to Play, Too

The benefits of play for adults are underrated. Do you remember the last time someone flirted with you?  Or that time when your friend teased you with a twinkle in their eye?  Or how about the last time you swung your little niece until she was dizzy and giggling, or you saw a movie that made you laugh until your cheeks hurt?

Babies do it. Children do it. Even animals, fish and birds do it, but in the English language, playing is almost exclusively associated with children and not adults.  Playing, in our grown up minds, has come to mean the opposite of working, but according to psychiatrist and founder of the National Institute for Play based in California, Dr Stuart Brown, the opposite of playing is actually depression.  

He says, “Try and imagine a culture or a life, adult or otherwise, without play: no humour, no flirtation, no movies, no games, no fantasy, [because] the thing that’s so unique to our species is that we’re really designed to play throughout our whole lifetime”.

It is easy to think about the benefits of play for children, but what about the benefits of play for adults?

The Benefits of Play for Adults

Brown says we all have the capacity to play-signal, that is, use our bodies, voices and facial expressions to cue those around us that we’re in ‘play mode’.  In fact, he says the basis of human trust is established through play signals, but tragically we begin to lose those signals, culturally and otherwise, as we grow up. 

A big fan of cultivating a state of play, even at work, is Sir Richard Branson.  He is one of the driving forces behind shifting thinking about our work environments and is known to enjoy teasing his colleagues and employees. 

(He once posted a video of himself lobbing a piece of elephant dung towards a colleague while on a safari game drive – the colleague got a big fright, convinced a snake had dropped on him!)

The benefits of play for adults can all be leveraged when you participate in a murder mystery dinner.

Beating stress: one of the benefits of play for adults

So what does play do for the brain?  A lot!  According to Brown, nothing ‘lights up’ our brains like play.  There’s a reason that adult play exists in modern society, says Lynn Barnett, a professor of recreation, sports and tourism at the University of Illinois.  One theory is that we play because it’s restorative — and there’s research to validate that, she says. 

“At work, play has been found to speed up learning, enhance productivity and increase job satisfaction; and at home, playing together, like going to a movie or a concert, can enhance bonding and communication.”

benefits of play for adults
Benefits of play for adults: allowing stressors to roll off more easily than those who are less playful.

Playful adults have the ability to turn stressful everyday situations into something entertaining, says Barnett.  She co-authored a study that revealed highly playful young adults who ranked themselves high on personality traits such as being spontaneous, energetic, or more likely to ‘clown around’, reported less stress in their lives and had better coping skills. 

“Highly playful adults feel the same stressors as anyone else, but they appear to experience and react to them differently, allowing stressors to roll off more easily than those who are less playful,” she adds.

Play often leads to laughter, which has been linked to decreased stress and inflammation and may improve vascular health.  Physical effects can include reduced blood pressure and a powerful release of dopamine – the brain chemical that regulates how you perceive and experience pleasure.

The benefits of play for adults: solving problems

Science has linked working out puzzle problems using your hands as a child with an increased ability to solve more complex cognitive problems as an adult, according to Brown.  He cites a team of researchers who used their experience in teaching mechanics to identify the link between childhood play and cognitive function in adults.  The research was so influential that top engineering and technology schools such as MIT in the USA, now prefer to accept students whose childhood included high levels of playtime.

The benefits of play for adults in the game of attraction

Playfulness could also make us more attractive to the opposite sex, according to a study from Pennsylvania State University.  Researchers got 250 students to rate 16 characteristics that they might look for in a long-term mate. ‘Sense of humour’ was number 1 for men and number 2 for women, while ‘fun-loving’ was ranked third for both and being ‘playful’ came in fourth for females and fifth for males.

“In men, playfulness signals non-aggressiveness, meaning they’d be less likely to harm a mate or offspring,” he said, “and in women, it signals youth and fertility,” according to lead researcher, Garry Chick.

The benefits of play for adults: An everyday practice

“Play is a basic human need as essential to our wellbeing as sleep, so when we’re low on play, our minds and bodies notice,” Brown says.  

He identifies ways you can tell you might be play-deprived:  feeling cranky, rigid, feel stuck in a rut or feeling victimized by life are some of the tell-tale signs.  To maximise on the reviving benefits of play, Brown suggests including play in our everyday lives.

How to play

What does play in adults look like, you might be asking?  

“What all play has in common,” says Brown, “is that it offers a sense of engagement and pleasure, takes the player out of a sense of time and place, and the experience of doing it is more important than the outcome.” 

Taking Brown’s wisdom into consideration, we’ve compiled a list of ways you can reignite the spirit of play in your life.

5 Ways to harness the benefits of play for adults

1. Change your mind.  

See play as a way of life and let your guard down.  You won’t be as serious and you’ll therefore feel better connected with others.

2. Break away from social scripts.  

Most of our social interactions are so highly structured and familiar we tend to navigate them on autopilot, which creates extremely uninteresting conversation. Create repartee by breaking social scripts (making sure you are play-signaling as you do) and you’ll have fun and make people smile. 

An example: instead of answering “I’m fine thank you” to the everyday “How are you?” question, try a new, exciting answer that catches the other person off guard: “My lawyer says I don’t have to answer that question”; “I am as happy as a tick on a big, fat dog”; “If I were doing any better, I’d have to hire you to enjoy it with me” or “Oh stop it, you.” (Say it like you’re receiving a compliment even though you are actually not). One of the surprising benefits of play for adults might even be more creative speech!

3. Take up a new sport. 

If you’ve ever had ‘ants in your pants’ – the physical sensation that your body desperately needs to get active – you’ll know that your muscles like play time too. Try taking up a sport you’re interested in, but you’ve never tried before such as Pilates, stand-up paddling (SUP), surfing, kite-boarding, triathlons, ballroom dancing or obstacle racing.  You’ll meet new people and your body will be grateful for the play-time you’ve given it!

4.  Experiment.  

New York Presbyterian minister, Timothy Keller, says that one of the great things about marriage is that it allows you to get so close to someone that you instinctively know how they would respond in almost any given situation.  

Try out new responses to situations that are outside of your normal personality range and you might be surprised at the positive outcomes it creates and the fun you have doing it.

5. Say yes to new experiences.  

Maybe you didn’t like playing card games as a kid because your older siblings ganged up on you, or maybe you never auditioned for the school play because you were too scared you’d get laughed out of the room.  

Another one of the surprising benefits of play for adults is creating the capacity to relook at those past experiences and try them again on your own terms with fresh confidence and renewed perspective.  Instead of turning down an invitation, say, to a murder mystery dinner party – embrace the spirit of play and say yes! 

Now that you’ve got some good ideas to work with, let us know in the comments below what you plan to do to embrace more play in your own life!

Thanks for reading!

Love Lisa

Thanks for reading about the benefits of play for adults. Have you checked out our Murder Mystery Guide Experiences? They are the perfect way to play with your friends, family or colleagues and they make for fun team building activities. See which product is right for your needs. We can recommend Petals Group, a world-class destination event decor company based in Cape Town to handle your styling for the evening, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *