Play—or fun, imaginative, relaxed, and self-directed activities—is a key part of life for children and adults alike. Play tends to be self-chosen, removed in some way from “real” life, and governed by a set of rules determined by the players, rather than an outside source. Play has myriad payoffs and is more common in children than adults; however, adults can and do play, often to their own benefit.
Free play is a natural part of development for both humans and animals. In humans, it is especially critical for children, as it is thought to bolster their social and emotional growth and provide them a means to learn as they explore the world. For both children and adults, play can be used as a reward, an educational tool, or a means to motivate someone to complete necessary tasks. Studies show that children who are given short play breaks during their days at school return to the classroom with more focus and increased ability to pay attention and learn. Playing, especially when unstructured, stimulates mental flexibility and creativity.
Research has shown that engaging in play strengthens cognitive skills, like critical thinking and working memory, that are vital to learning. Play also helps children and adults learn how to work in a group, share, and take turns—all key skills that can help stimulate social and intellectual growth.
Beyond physical activity guidelines, there are no exact guidelines for how much play is necessary for development. If left alone, young children would likely spend most of their waking hours playing, and less time spent playing is tied to negative outcomes. Thus, parents are encouraged to allow as much free play as is feasible.
In recent decades, the amount of free play has declined dramatically for many children. Along with heightened academic demands and the rise of electronic devices, experts speculate that social changes have curbed children’s opportunities to go outside and play with friends. Concurrent rises in depression, anxiety, and suicide have been credited to declining play.
Playing serves a number of important functions in child development. Through play, children can assert their independence from adults, learning about their own preferences and dislikes in the process. They can hone their skills at forming and maintaining friendships with their peers. They learn to take turns, share, and compromise—all key for growing into agreeable, competent adults.
And though play may seem imaginary or purely whimsical, it can also allow children to practice tasks that they will need to do for themselves when they grow up—such as handling their finances or running a household. Playing offers a rare opportunity for children to take control of their own environment—they can test different emotional experiences, such as aggression and sexual curiosity, without the risk of adverse consequences.
Different researchers have identified different “types” of play that children engage in—including fantasy or pretend play, physical or locomotor play (such as chasing or fighting), constructive play (in which children build or create things), language play (inventing words, playing with rhymes, etc), and games with rules. All types of play are valuable for children.
Parents should follow the child’s lead in play—engaging with her imaginary world, shifting gears when desired, and stopping when she (or the parent) wants to. On the other hand, parents shouldn’t feel bossed around or forced to keep playing. In order for play to be valuable, children must learn to negotiate and cooperate—not dominate or terrorize others.
Absolutely. Many parents mistakenly think that they should play with their child whenever he asks. But children benefit enormously from playing independently or by playing exclusively with other children. Though playing with children can be fun for both parties, adults should feel empowered to let children amuse themselves whenever possible.
The benefits of playing don’t have to stop when childhood ends. Playing frisbee in the park, gathering friends for an old-fashioned board game, playing video games, and doing crossword and sudoku puzzles all protect the adult brain by improving cognitive flexibility and memory. Getting away from familiar locations can help adults let their imaginations loose.
Adult playfulness can signal that a person, especially a male, is not a threat and is trying to belong to a group. Playing as an adult can also reduce stress, promote optimism, and strengthen one’s ability to take on other perspectives. Unfortunately, many grownups have a love-hate relationship with play—often being so afraid to take a vacation that they end up working during their time off. In order for an adult to continue to benefit from play, it must be valued and prioritized by the society in which he or she lives.
Play, in almost any form, has myriad benefits for adults. It reduces stress, improves feelings of optimism, builds cognitive flexibility, and is even theorized to help attract and keep mates. Despite play’s decreasing importance in our results-driven culture, researchers continue to find evidence for the power of play in almost every domain.
Adults tend to stop playing either because they consider it “childish” or because they become consumed with adult responsibilities like careers, childcare, and relationships. But despite these conflicts, most adults never lose their playfulness—and what’s more, all of the domains that seemingly preclude play can actually benefit from it.
Building more unstructured time into one’s schedule can allow adults to engage in activities that bring them joy and to access their playful side. Looking for humor in everyday situations can help spark playfulness. And spontaneity—agreeing to unplanned activities that are outside of one’s normal routine—can help foster both playfulness and psychological flexibility.