Wanna come out and play? This earnest childhood invitation to engage with friends is recognized around the world by people of all ages. Play comes naturally for most children because it is their chosen language to communicate. Children start to play when they are infants – connecting with their world through movement and discovering how their body moves. As a child ages, they engage in various types of play as they observe and interact with others. Language, social, and motor development are enhanced by both directed and free play. It’s crucial to our mental health as well.
Are you still playing? Most of us start finding other activities to keep us busy as we develop and age. As adults, the most we play might be a step recording walk, a board game with a child, and maybe even a video game. Not the kind of play we did as kids, and not really that much fun either. Finding ways to incorporate play in our everyday routine may help us in numerous ways, especially throughout this pandemic.
Play is not just for kids anymore, and it can be the secret weapon to stay young at heart! Interacting with others and opening ourselves up to enjoying activities in the present moment allows us to enhance our closest relationships as well as develop new ones. When parents model positive social skills during play, kids can learn new skills and enhance the ones they have, like taking turns and having patience. By communicating and connecting with others, we continually develop new social skills and strengthen playful attitudes throughout our lifetime.
Play, in many forms, helps improve brain function, from puzzles and memory games to physical play that gets the old heart pumping. That old myth that the brain is set at a young age is completely false. Neuroplasticity is the concept that our brain keeps growing and changing throughout our lifetime. Neural pathways are stimulated through play activities and can create new synaptic connections. Creativity gets a boost from play where we create, move, make decisions and use our imagination in something like Dungeons and Dragons, an imaginary tea party or even a 30-second dance party. Sharing fun and being playful helps us develop compassion, empathy, trust, and intimacy. Laughter is the best medicine, so a raucous game of charades might be just what the doctor ordered.
One major intersection of play and mental health wellness is the use of play therapy by a licensed therapist or clinician. Play therapy takes all of the vital aspects brought about by adding play to our lives and uses them to assist clients in improving their lives. Through observing and engaging in play, the therapist can connect and communicate with the client, using the signs, symbols, and actions of the client’s play to assess needs. Using creative arts, like clay, sand, music, and paint, a play therapist can engage in ways that traditional talk therapy might not be able to reach. Play therapy is not limited to children or teens. Adults can benefit immensely by allowing their playful, expressive side access a different avenue for healing and positive mental health. Play is not only the prescription for healing, it is the mode for learning more about the challenges faced by the client.
Play is a crucial part of who we are as humans. It is how we first communicate and it is how we engage parts of ourself that are lost in the busy every day schedules we keep. So the next time you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, ask yourself when was the last time you played- really played? It might be a game of catch, it might be building a snowman, or playing a video game. It could be engaging in a creative outlet like music or as simple as breaking out the UNO deck and asking your family to join you in some fun and games. Let’s all take this challenge- as we are in Play Therapy Awareness month, find a way to slip some play into your everyday life. At this point in the pandemic, we have tried baking, crocheting, and watching everything Netflix has to offer. How about we turn to each other and ask, “Wanna play?” Now go have some fun- it’s a healthy thing to do and you just might like it.
Tina Patterson, TLMFT, is a clinic therapist with Tanager Place.