- As children, people innately know how to play, but this often gets lost in the busyness of adult lives.
- Play is an embodied experience that starts in the autonomic nervous system.
- Recalling what one loved to do as a child can help one discover how to bring more play into one's adult life.
- Play has many flavors and can be brought into some of the more routine moments of our lives to add joy.
When was the last time you did something playful? As kids, we innately know how to play and how to use our natural imagination, inquisitiveness, presence, and creativity to find joy in day-to-day life. Somewhere along the way, as adults, we often lose our connection to these playful qualities within us. We take on more responsibilities, we become more serious, we have to deal with life’s day-to-day stressors, and we often forget how to play.
It is well-documented that play is associated with psychological and physical well-being in children. While there is currently only a small amount of research on this topic in adults, it does suggest that play has positive benefits for adults as well. But I believe it doesn’t take research to know that bringing more play into our lives feels good, shifts our mood, dials down stress, and can help us be more resilient when faced with daily challenges. (I know my playful self is much more receptive to handling hassles that come my way than my stressed, uptight, serious self.)
A way to understand play
One way of understanding play and how to bring more of it into our day is to understand that play is an embodied experience that starts in our autonomic nervous system. Health and performance coach and polyvagal expert Michael Allison teaches that in addition to our more familiar bodily states of “fight or flight” (think stressed, angry, anxious), our calm state of relaxation (think lying on a beach), and our state of shutdown or collapse (think crawling in bed and wanting to be left alone, low energy, feeling down or hopeless), there is another autonomic bodily state that he calls “the Play Zone.” We experience this when our nervous system is grounded in a felt sense of safety, and there is also mobilized energy moving through us (a blended state of our sympathetic nervous system giving us energy alongside the activation of our ventral vagus pathway, which brings with it a sense of safety).
Think about the following and notice what shifts or changes in your body as you call to mind each one:
- A time when you felt stressed out
- A time when you felt down in the dumps (don’t pick something too upsetting or intense)
- A time when you felt deeply calm and relaxed
- A time when you were being playful, having fun doing something you love just for the sake of it (not because you had to)
Can you feel the combined calm yet mobilized energy in the last example—perhaps a flutter of excitement, lightheartedness, or a spark of joy? That’s your nervous system feeling safe and giving you the energy to do something you care about at the same time. Start to pay attention as you go through the day and notice what ordinary things in your week spark some of that playful energy.
The many flavors of play
Play for grown-ups can come in many flavors, and we each need to listen to our own inner signals to find what brings out our playful spirit. While board games, adult recreational sports (e.g., tennis, pickleball, softball), puzzles, and online games can be a source of play and fun, there are so many other ways that adults can incorporate moments of play and playfulness into their daily lives.
To discover how to bring more playfulness into your life, try this:
- Visualize what you loved to do as a kid. Close your eyes and, in your mind, go back in time to a moment when you were playing as a kid, doing something you loved. Put yourself there now, as if you were watching this as a movie in your mind and could re-experience the feelings as if they were happening now. See yourself doing this thing that you loved to do. Did it involve imaginative play and make-believe, creating or inventing something, going on an adventure and exploring something new, moving your body with physical activity (climbing at the playground, splashing in the water)? Was it solitary or with others?
- Identify what your flavor of play looks like. Write down anything you noticed from the above exercise about what you were doing and how it made you feel. In addition, make a list of all the things you can recall that you used to love to do as a kid in addition to this memory. Now go back and look for themes. What can you learn about yourself and the kinds of things that you found fun and enjoyable? What energized you most? What made you feel most alive? What brought you joy? What was fun for your soul?
- Make an action plan. Taking what you learned from step 2, come up with as many ways as you can think of to bring that flavor of play into your adult life. If you were a kid who got joy out of creating and inventing things, what might you create for fun now (art projects, recipes, blogs, scrapbooks, greeting cards for loved ones)? How might you bring more creativity into your day? If you loved playing with others as a kid, what might you do that brings you into more connection with others in fun ways (e.g., taking a knitting class, joining a photography club, joining a softball league, organizing a progressive dinner party)? If you got joy out of exploring and learning new things, what mini adventures and learning experiences could you create for yourself (exploring a nearby park or museum, taking a course in something you always wanted to learn about, picking up a new hobby)?
- Introduce playfulness into the routines of daily life. It’s easy to get stuck in the mundane activities of daily living. We often do the same things in the same ways, over and over. Bringing an element of playfulness and novelty into our day need not take much time; sometimes, it is just a matter of changing things up a tad. Here are a few things I’ve tried out this week: jamming out to my favorite music and dancing around the kitchen while cooking; making a game of doing household chores (something I used to do with my kids) by trying to “beat the clock” and see if I can complete everything before the timer goes off; going for a walk in the rain and splashing in the puddles at my feet.
Playfulness isn’t just for kids. But it does take some intention to integrate more play into our adult lives. Think about some small ways that you might reclaim your playful self, and experiment! The results might just be delightful.