Play is a powerful tool. For children, it helps their minds create connections between neurons, helps them promote development of coping mechanisms, and lets them experience different interactions in a safe and controlled manner. It is a major part of how they learn to navigate the world around them.
For adults it has different, but no less important, purposes. When adults play they are able to let go of daily stresses and be present in the moment, if only briefly. This can be extremely difficult when you have responsibilities at work, dependents at home, and things need to get done. When we adults allow ourselves to release our stresses and interact with our bodies and environments freely, our brains are able to move the fast pace and constant stimulus to the back burner and just be. While this may seem trivial and childish to some, it has been proven time and again that we gain huge physiological and emotional benefits.
Moving our bodies gets our blood pumping and our muscles working, which in turn promotes higher brain function. Hormones that get released during physical activity elevate positive emotions. Releasing our conscious selves from the constraints of societal pressures increases our confidence and feeling of self worth.
I have a hacky-sack, just a little woven ball filled with plastic beads that I stole from my daughter’s toy box. Don’t worry, she has plenty of other toys to make up for it. Every once in a while I pull it out and try to keep it in the air without using my hands or arms for as long as possible. I’m not very good at it, I definitely look stupid doing it, but boy is it fun. And after playing with it for 10 minutes or so, my heart is pumping! For a long time in my early adult life, I only played seriously.
What I mean by that is my play had rigorous structure. I would go to the basketball court and try to get shots in from close to the hoop and move back in a regimented fashion until I got to the three-point line. Probably a good way to get better at basketball, but not really letting myself go. I still have vestiges of that mindset of linear progression in my play, try as I might to erase it.
Even playing with my hacky-sack I am trying to get to a set number of hits before I lose control. When my son plays, he is utterly at the mercy of his activity. While his stuffed animals are engaged in battle against the imaginary zombie hordes, I literally have to yell to get his attention.
My aim for my play is to be able to get so absorbed in my play that I become one with the moment, like my son. Ask a child what they will be doing in two hours. They probably have no idea. Ask them what they did yesterday morning. If they're anything like my kids, they'll probably have no idea.
They live in the moment, and they are therefore able to experience life at face value. If their ice cream falls on the ground, it’s absolutely the worst thing that has ever happened to them. If you then buy them a new one, it’s the best thing that ever happened to anyone ever in the history of the world. They don’t focus on the fact that they once had an ice cream, they are concentrating on what’s in front of them now.
As adults we tend to fret over what needs to be done and reminisce over what has happened. Certainly planning for the future is important, and remembering the past has its place. But the now is where we actually live, and it must not be overlooked. The only time we can make a change in our life is now. The only time we can grow ourselves is now.
Personally I feel the best way to bring ourselves back into now is by unadulterated play. Whether that manifests as kicking a hacky-sack, dancing, or just jumping around, whatever you feel will help you break free from your built-up adult persona is exactly what you need to do, if only for a few minutes a day. Now I’m off to try to hit a ball with some nunchucks, because that’s what I would do if I was a kid right now.