I remember how good it felt as a child to get a play break in the school day. I loved the recess bell. Rushing from the classroom onto the playground for a variety of outdoor activities was a stress releaser for energetic bodies and a needed change of pace for tired minds. It is well known that play is important for children, but what does it do for grown-ups? The National Institute for Play, founded by author and psychiatrist Stuart Brown, M.D., is an organization dedicated to the importance of play for all ages. The following reflects some of its research.
As adults we sometimes take life so seriously we forget to have fun. We’re involved in careers, families, friends, and communities, which are all meaningful pursuits. But what if play were the catalyst for enhancing all our life experiences? And what if it’s about more than enhancing our experiences — what if play is critical to them? Dr. Brown writes, “Play, like oxygen, is all around us but mostly goes unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing.” If this is surprising, let’s remember that play comes in many forms. There is something for all of us: art, music, books, gentle humor, sports done for just the enjoyment (I love kayaking!), daydreaming, storytelling, cooking, playing games, being silly with young children, and enjoying pets, just to name a few. If play is as critical as oxygen, we need to pay attention!
From recent experience I know the strong balancing power of humor and fun when we’re in the caregiver role. This summer we spent time in northern Wisconsin taking care of my husband’s parents, who are 97 and 98, in poor health, and home-bound except for doctor’s appointments. Although their bodies are worn out, their minds are sharp, so we can still have meaningful conversations and enjoy gentle teasing. They are able to laugh at their idiosyncrasies and their (very) slow pace around the house. And they are open about saying that after 76 years together, they are still learning new things about each other. Humor lightens up a tough situation. Dear as they are, it takes a lot of work from their four children to keep them in their home. Everyday there’s a list of things that need to be done for their well-being.
Our intensive work scenario was followed by a time of fun with our kids and grandkids. We went to a cabin in northern Michigan and spent time together tubing down a section of the Pere Marquette River – lots of laughs when the current took us where we didn’t want to go, or someone unexpectedly got stuck on a submerged log (yes, it was me). One day it was refreshing to walk out on one of Lake Michigan’s piers to a lighthouse to watch the waves come in. We bonded over board and card games, evening camp fires that always included s’mores, and making up never-before-told before stories whose characters had ridiculous names and wild adventures. Playing together released endorphins, enhanced our relationship, deepened intimacy, boosted creativity, and helped reenergize our bodies. Here is where play pays off. Without that time of fun, we would have left exhausted physically and emotionally. Instead, we left with a renewed appreciation for the power and gifts of play.
Dr. Brown has spent many years studying the power of play in adults ranging from prisoners to Nobel Prize winners. After reviewing over 6,000 “play histories,” he discovered that lack of play was an important commonality in predicting criminal behavior. He also found that couples who played together kept their relationships fresh and enjoyed more emotional intimacy. In addition to being a physician, Bowen F. White, is a speaker and clown. As a clown he is Dr. Jerko, who is a proctologist. He has a large behind and wears a doctor’s coat that says, “I’m interested in your stools.” The mental image is worth a laugh. He has clowned at hospitals, orphanages, prisons, and major corporations all over the world. He believes laughter and fun are for all ages. Play has the ability to cross both language and cultural barriers so, even when he stood on a street in Moscow’s Red Square, not knowing the language, he soon had a crowd of 30 people around him completely enjoying his juggling and joking.
Dr. White knows the power his kind of fun has because of the feedback he receives from family members after a visit to someone seriously ill. Play can be the doorway to sacred spaces, touching people in intimate and meaningful ways. When we’re having fun we let our guard down and have easier connections to deeper experiences. Both Dr. White and Dr. Brown have done research showing that play can dramatically transform our health, relationships, vitality, creativity, and performance at work and at home. Not playing has serious consequences. People who don’t play are at increased risk for mental illness, addiction, stress-related illness, and violent behavior. What a difference fun can make.
Let’s give ourselves permission to play every day, and surround ourselves with playful people. No matter where we are, or what is going on in our lives, learning to lighten up and play helps not only us, but everyone who is a part of our day. Recess isn’t just for kids! According to Dr. Brown, “Play is the purest expression of love.” And who of us couldn’t use more of that? Today let’s love ourselves enough to play as often as possible, have a good belly laugh, increase energy, and enjoy childlike exuberance. Isn’t it time for recess?
Until Next Time – Sylvia