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  • Courtney Bowles, LCMHCA

The Power of Play: Not Just an Activity for Children

As someone who studies play therapy, I’m here to shed a little light on what makes play so powerful for both children and adults and why you should be integrating it into your life- no matter your age.

To start, play is so much more than building towers and playing dress up. It’s an avenue for children to make sense of their world. Through play, children are able to communicate their needs, hopes, desires, thoughts, feelings, and wishes. At the end of the day, a child likely won’t tell you they’ve had a hard day, but they may ask you to play.

So, by now we know that play is an important part of childhood, but what is really going on in play?

Researchers have found that play activates some interesting parts of the brain - it stimulates nerve growth (stimulates the brain-derived neurotrophic factor) in the area of the brain where emotions are processed (amygdala) and where executive decisions are processed (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex). Play is literally changing and sculpting our brains!

For children, play is a developmentally appropriate modality to work through these emotions and decompress from the day.

However, play isn’t just for kids. In fact, play is important for adults as well! There is an innate biological drive to play, just like there are biological drives to eat, sleep, and have sex. However, when our energy is spent focusing on surviving until the next day, eating and sleeping take precedence. This makes sense and explains why when we become adults (and have more responsibilities), play falls to the wayside despite it being a natural, biological need.

We can all agree that surviving is important, but what happens when play gets pushed off to the side for too long? Well, we see things like worsening symptoms of mental health disorders, chronic stress, and burnout.

Okay, but how do adults play? We get curious. There’s not really a “right” way to play, as play for one person isn’t necessarily play for another, but there are some criteria.

Play is a state of mind, one where you’re open to new experiences, you’re engaging in seemingly “purposeless” activities, and you’re finding enjoyment from it! You’re not focused on necessarily attaining a goal but having an experience. Play for adults can be activities like paddleboarding, reading, crocheting, golfing, watching a movie, cooking, and so on!

It's important that play feels enriching and restorative - that's how you know you're on the right track!

If I were to wrap this blog post up into one thought, it would be that play is for everyone. While I will never stop screaming from the rooftops about the power of play for children, I’ll also encourage adults to revisit and reconnect with play for themselves to work against and prevent stress and burnout.

So, play, relax, and watch the magic happen. And by magic, I mean resiliency.

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