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What Is Play?

At a basic level, play is something a person wants to do, rather than something they’ve been told to do. It tends to be self-directed, imaginative, relaxed, and governed by a set of rules determined by the players involved. Playing, especially when unstructured, stimulates mental flexibility and creativity. It is more common in children than adults, because children don’t have the same pressing responsibilities and are able to more easily shift into a playful mindset. However, adults can and do play, often to their own benefit.

Free play is a natural part of child development. It’s frequently used by adults as a reward or educational tool to motivate children, especially younger ones, 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. What's more, animal studies show that play, and especially vigorous play, turns on many genes in the brain, indicating growth of new neural connections.

Unfortunately, recent social changes have curbed children’s opportunities to simply go outside and play with friends. At the same time, experts have noted a rise in depression, anxiety, and even suicide rates that they suggest may be related to play deprivation.

Why Children Need to 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 can also practice tasks that they will need to do for themselves when they grow up—such as, handling their finances. Playing offers a rare opportunity for children to take control of their own environment—they can test out different emotional experiences, like aggression and sexual curiosity, without the risk of adverse consequences.

Fun and Leisure for Adults

The benefits of playing don’t have to stop when childhood ends. Playing videogames, gathering your friends for an old-fashioned board game, 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. So why do so 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?

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