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The Benefits Of “Playtime” As An Adult

Written by James Kicinski-McCoy


There’s no arguing that the power of play in our children’s lives is crucial. Let’s face it—playtime not only gives parents a much needed break, but it also provides kids with a healthy, creative stimulus. And, who doesn’t want more of that? But, what about “playtime” and the role that it plays (no pun intended) in the lives of adults? Before you call it crazy, research has shown that incorporating a bit more play as a grownup can have some seriously positive side effects. We’ve asked Halley Bock, author of Life, Incorporated: A Practical Guide To Wholehearted Living, to give us the low-down on what adult playtime really looks like, and why it’s so important, below.

For some, the concept of “playtime” in adulthood can feel juvenile or silly. What does play look like for adults, and how can we push past the widespread stigma of “all work and no play”?
“Unfortunately, play has been saddled with the stigma of being fruitless, frivolous, and only for kids. But, play is quite the opposite. Engaging in play not only heightens creativity, it also strengthens our ability to adapt to change, which is essential to evolution and survival. In fact, it is thanks to psychological neoteny—the retention of immature qualities into adulthood that include curiosity and playfulness—that humans have evolved to the extent we have. Without this core ability to explore alternatives and remain fluid in our approach to solving problems, we would be unable to navigate an uncertain and changing world.”

Play, according to Stuart Brown, author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, is defined through the following seven properties:

1. Apparent Purposelessness: Play is done for its own sake, with no apparent survival value.
2. Voluntary: Play is not obligatory or required by duty.
3. Inherent Attraction: It’s fun. Play makes you feel good.
4. Freedom from Time: We lose a sense of the passage of time.
5. Diminished Consciousness of Self: We stop worrying about how we are perceived. We are fully in the moment.
6. Improvisational Potential: We aren’t locked into a rigid way of doing things. We never know what’s going to happen.
7. Continuation Desire: We desire to keep doing it, and wish to extend it.

“As long as your version of play meets the criteria above, it can look like anything!” says Bock.

What are some of the key benefits of adult playtime?
“Play increases our capacity to connect with joy, as it’s time solely focused on oneself. Other key benefits are waking up the creative mind, discovering new pathways into what drives us, and opportunities for deeper connection with others.”

Why is play so necessary in our adult routines? How often should we set aside time for it?
“The expression of play is essential to our ability to regulate emotions, to create, to adapt, to forge and reinforce bonds with one another, to develop compassion for ourselves and others, and to ease stress. Too often, we allow work and family priorities to mire down our days leaving us little or no time to engage in what brings us joy. When we constantly put ourselves at the back of the line, we do no favors to anyone. Instead, we deplete our capacity to infuse creativity, joy, and innovation into our work and lives.”

Do you suggest any particular activities for engaging in adult play? Do some have a more positive or stimulating outcome than others?
“Play is a very individualized ‘sport’. For some, it’s knitting. For others, it’s kayaking or downhill skiing.”

Bock invites you to identify your own expression of play by taking yourself through the following exercise:

  • Step 1: Identify Past and Present Images of Play
    Past Images of Play
    What images come to mind when you think back to your earliest memories of clear, joyful play?
    What activities did you do as a child where the hours passed like minutes?
    When you were given the luxury of free time, what are the things, activities, or people you would run to first?
  • Present Images of Play
    What images come to mind when you think of what now represents clear, joyful play in your life?
    What activities do you engage in now that make the hours pass like minutes?
    When, or if, you are given the luxury of free time, what are the things, activities, or people you run to first?
  • Step 2: Compare the Past to the Present
    Answer the following questions to look for similarities between your past and current images of play:
    What common themes do you see between the images of play from your past and your current images of play?
    When you think of those themes in terms of emotions, what feelings do these images consistently evoke?
    Are there similarities between the environment, activity, people, or sensations of play that have spanned across the decades?
  • Step 3: List Your Expressions of Play
    Using your answers from Step 1 and 2, list out any current ways you engage in play while also jotting down some new possibilities given the themes or connections you uncovered in Step 3.

What is the correlation between incorporating more adult play in our lives and the effects that it has on one’s relationships, if any correlation at all?
“We often hear the advice, ‘place your oxygen mask on first before assisting others’ and play is an excellent source of oxygen. When we infuse more joy and personal connection with self into our own life, we have it to give to others. And, play doesn’t need to be a solo sport. While I do suggest some endeavors alone, pairing up with your friends, family, or spouse can be an equally powerful choice. To do this, sit down together and come up with a list of what play looks like for each of you. If there are overlaps, then you have a way for you to both experience play together. If there is no overlap, which is sometimes the case, take turns experiencing each other’s version of play. The only rule here is no complaining or critiquing your partner’s version. Leave your inner judge at the door, go explore, and have fun supporting your mate.”

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