Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Are We Having Fun Yet?

The healing power of play.

Key points

  • Dropout rates from traditional psychotherapy can be as high as 20%.
  • Play therapy is traditionally offered only to children.
  • Adult play therapy can increase compliance, decrease resistance, and enhance the healing relationship.

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; We grow old because we stop playing.” —George Bernard Shaw

During a recent stress management training I was reviewing some go-to methods for stepping out of old habitual patterns and referenced play as an important element for overall health. To make the point on how we often think of play, and therefore fun, as something we leave behind in childhood I quoted the following lines from a poem by Rabindranath Tagore:

Child, how happy you are sitting in the dust, playing with a broken twig all the morning.

I smile at your play with that little bit of a broken twig.

I am busy with my accounts, adding up figures by the hour.

Perhaps you glance at me and think, "What a stupid game to spoil your morning with!"

Child, I have forgotten the art of being absorbed in sticks and mud-pies.

This prompted a discussion on how we often grow up thinking we have to take life seriously and suffer the consequences of playing the “stupid game” of adulthood. What followed was a discussion on the psychotherapeutic approach of play therapy and its reflexive connection to working with children. Those in attendance wholeheartedly agreed that more adults would enter and commit to ongoing therapy if they were able to use some of the tried-and-true methods of children’s therapy such as playing with sand, using dolls or stuffed animals, painting or drawing, and role playing, to name just a few.

Very few people answer the question, “How was your therapy session?” with, “It was fun, I had a great time.” Dropout rates from traditional psychotherapy sessions have been estimated to be around 20%. While reasons vary, with insurance coverage a leading cause, many people leave therapy because they find it ineffective or “not a good fit." As a mental health practitioner with four decades of experience, I’ve seen the “one and done” phenomenon throughout my career and have struggled to find ways to encourage follow-up visits.

Reserving play therapy for children ignores what we know about the benefits of both this form of therapy and play itself. Benefits of play therapy include optimizing learning, enhancing relationships, and improving health and well-being. Therapeutic uses of play therapy have been utilized to address:

To be clear, my idea of adult play therapy (APT) is not inner-child work. This concept only reinforces the idea that this is a child’s activity and a form of regression. It’s not helpful to try and help clients take on the stressors of adult living by taking them back to a time when such issues did not exist. What is helpful is to give credence to, and permission for, a more playful approach to life. After all the word itself from Old English plegian means to "move lightly and quickly, occupy or busy oneself, amuse oneself.”

Widening the scope of APT is a win/win for both client and psychotherapist as the therapeutic exchanges take on a lighter tone, are less threatening, have both behavioral and cognitive elements, and are less likely to create an adversarial relationship that often develops when client and therapist seem to be heading in different directions. Additionally, the go-to techniques of play therapy engage multiple senses in the healing process, which we have learned is vital to recovery from the traumas many have experienced.

Finally, time outside the therapeutic hour can easily and joyfully be used to invoke the playful spirit in-between sessions and comfortably shared with friends and loved ones—seldom the case with traditional therapeutic techniques.

Many great thinkers have agreed with Abrham Maslow’s contention that “Almost all creativity involves purposeful play” and have reinforced the idea of the power of play. Let’s stop thinking they we're only talking about children and understand that play is the essence of life and not something to leave behind.

According to the National Institute of Play, “Science has shown that play is very productive for humans at any age; we need play to keep our brains flexible, ward off depression, sustain optimism, and sharpen our social-emotional skills.” They suggest a 3-step model for living a more playful life that includes:

  1. Find your play personality.
  2. Consider how you like to play.
  3. Try something that sounds fun.

If even this sounds like more work, I strongly recommend jumping to step 3 and seeing what happens. If it helps you can add the following anacronym to support your 1 or 3-tep model: FUN=Feeding Unmet Needs.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


More from Mike Verano LPC, LMFT
More from Psychology Today
More from Mike Verano LPC, LMFT
More from Psychology Today