Why so serious?
I ask myself this question at least 10 times a day. During brainstorming meetings where no braining or storming is happening, or when my tween child makes a questionable fashion choice. When traffic is rush-hour level at not rush-hour time, or something fails at the most inconvenient moment—like a flat tire during a 12-mile bike ride, which seems to be my cycling karma these days.
When these things happen, serious is my default mode. Why so serious? I ask myself. I’m not a particularly serious person, but my emotions automatically head this way, particularly when I’m frustrated.
Faced with similar situations, I’ve watched children burst into giggles and move onto the next thing. Sure, there might be an “Ugh!” or “Oh no!” but they quickly move on. Perhaps that’s because for children, life is play. Their approach to everything is playful and whatever obstacles enter the picture are part of their larger game of life.
While we all know play is fundamental to child development, what about adults? Something happens between elementary school and grown-up-hood where play becomes non-existent or secondary at best. What would happen if adults played more? And how do we begin to awaken our inner child?
Play is Strength
In Rochester, New York, there is an entire museum devoted to play. The Strong Museum of Play opened in 1982, and its mission is to explore the ways in which play encourages learning, creativity, and discovery, and how it illuminates cultural history.
Who’s behind this play palace? An adult: collector Margaret Woodbury Strong. Over time, she collected more than 27,000 dolls and tons of American household objects. Most of her collections, however, related to play, and she was known for her awesome collection of dolls and toys.
Ms. Strong was onto something.
Science Says So
In a late-night scroll session, I came across an article describing the breaks of high-powered executives who played kickball and hopscotch—recess for grown-ups—as a way to decompress. I was fascinated, I’ve always loved swinging, jump rope, tug-of-war, roller skating and other “juvenile” activities as a brain reset. And here was science saying that these activities were good for me!
Among the many benefits of play for adults listed: increased problem-solving, creativity, productivity, and group cohesion. Another benefit? Play reduces cortisol — that stress-producing hormone — and releases endorphins. It also helps keep depression at bay, improves cognitive health, and lowers the risk of developing age-related neurodegenerative conditions like dementia.
More Like A Playdate Than A Workout
About a year ago, a friend asked me to register for a local Triathlon with her. I said “Yes.” I am a life-longer runner, so I added swimming and biking to my workout mix. Now I find myself “playing” as I train.
For that initial Tri, I purchased my first “real” bike. And with the help of my children, named “her” (Destiny Stardust, if you’re wondering.). That first “fast” ride with 21 speeds instead of my cruiser’s one, was magical. Fast. Breezy. Fun! Like a rollercoaster. I smiled for 10 miles. In a moment, I was back to my eight-year-old self, it didn’t feel like training at all. It felt like joy.
Mikki Lee Martin, Co-Founder and CVO Director of Youth Programs at Brand X®, The Brand X Method® knows intimately the benefits of play for exercise. “Play is integral to our philosophy,” she says of their program. “We use a BIO PSYCHOSOCIAL approach to Youth Fitness. Play is foundational in the learning of movement, and psychosocial interaction.”
While Brand X® is designed for youth, its play-based programming applies to adults as well. “Play allows for BDNF—Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor AKA ‘Miracle Grow for the Brain’—to be released, and this increases both the length of retained memories as well as their ‘stickiness,’” says Martin.
Along with the benefits of movement from physical play, adults can benefit from the practicing of life skills, increasing social skills and accessing better retention of those lessons.
“The best thing is that true play is defined as something we don’t want to have end, we naturally want to stay in that amazing state of freedom and fearlessness,” says Martin.
Remember that dinner table warning bellowed by parents across the world? “Don’t play with your food!”
When it comes to cooking as adults, we can flip that phrase on its head.
It’s well known that “kitchen play” like cooking, serving, and preparing “food” is one of the best examples of imaginative play for children—it’s proven essential to cognitive, physical, social, and emotional wellbeing.
Why not bring that play into everyday meal prep? As you nourish your body with wholesome, rich ingredients, you can also nourish your soul with play.
Turn on some music, dance and sing as you mix things up. Toss in some unexpected spices or grab an ingredient you’ve never put in your recipe before. Ask your family and friends to get in on the fun.
Experiment, explore—get in the zone and play with your food!
It’s Time To Play
Letting your inner child come out to play is pivotal in reducing stress, increasing creativity, solving problems, building resilience and making friends. From blowing bubbles and coloring, to playing catch and conquering an obstacle course, the possibilities for play are endless—and often simple.
Vanessa Asha Nank, author of Mindful Me and a school psychologist who has spent time with children in both public school and clinical settings, has seen the benefits of play firsthand. “Reconnecting with our inner child can be filled with possibility. It’s a time to be reminded of that sense of wonder, curiosity, and pure innovative freedom we once felt.”