Atlantis, The Palm, Dubai/Aquaventure Waterpark, used with permission
Source: Atlantis, The Palm, Dubai/Aquaventure Waterpark, used with permission

Three things you need to know: One, I took a downtime-laden work trip to Dubai late last year. Two, I didn't have any friends there. And three, the hotel I stayed in (the beautiful Atlantis, The Palm) has a world-class waterpark. If you are a self-confident adult who gives zero effs what a bunch of tourists think of you, you'll draw the logical conclusion that I threw on my swimsuit and sprinted over to the Aquaconda slide the first chance I got. Instead, I hemmed and hawed, embarrassed to be the weird 30-something-year-old bobbing around a lazy river solo.

But you know what? I finally got over it and just dove in (literally), and it ended up being a blast. I made friends with the family who shared the same eight-person tube with me. I met a fellow adult enthusiast who told me which rides were the best (and which lines were the shortest). I found a slide I really liked and did it three times in a row, with no one but the chuckling employee noticing.

I loved letting that silly inner kid, with her devil-may-care attitude, out to play. And research demonstrates that we grownups benefit profoundly when we engage in play. Researchers at the National Institute for Play (a name I first misremembered as "the Institute for Adult Play," which is the kind of thing you need to Google gingerly) define play by a few important elements:

  • It's self-directed and voluntary.
  • The means are at least as important as the ends.
  • It's imaginative and non-literal—somehow removed from "real" life.
  • It requires an active, engaged frame of mind. 
  • It's pleasurable!
Atlantis, The Palm, Dubai/Aquaventure Waterpark, used with permission
Source: Atlantis, The Palm, Dubai/Aquaventure Waterpark, used with permission

In adults, playfulness has been linked with social and cognitive benefits. What strikes me is that those hallmarks — and the benefits — have a lot in common with the reasons adults travel in general. We go on trips to get out of our routine, to take in a new environment with childlike wonder, to wake up every morning unsure what the day will hold. I can’t prove it, but it makes sense to me that building actual play into your vacation — whether it’s Gladiator School in Rome, a citywide scavenger hunt in the next state over, or a few hours of hitting the gnarliest water slides in Dubai — will enhance that high even further. Happy playing!

References

Rubin, Fein, & Vandenberg (1983). Social and Nonsocial Play. In D.P. Fromberg & D. Bergen (Eds.), Play from birth to twelve (2nd edition). New York: Garland. 

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