Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Happiness and Growth through Play

Do you play, or do you need to learn to play?

Some perceive that all of creation plays, from water to water buffalo, from breezes to birds. If you watch the natural world closely, it does seem that way. In fact, play is found is most animal phyla, even fish and lizards (Burghardt, 2005).

But you are an adult—do adults play? Adults like O. Fred Donaldson (1993) have learned to play (carefully) with wild animals. More than likely, you won’t be doing that (and it is not advised). But playfulness is part of our mammalian heritage.If you watch mammals in the wild (or semi-wild), the young are often at play (human children are too when we let them). Play is what young mammals do when they feel safe (Panksepp & Biven, 2012). In fact, our heritage is to learn through play and children in contexts representing 99% of our heritage (small-band hunter-gatherers) spend most of their time playing (see chapters by Douglas Fry and Peter Gray in Narvaez et al., 2014).

In a work-obsessed society, play is often ridiculed unless one is in a creative field. But play is not just for kids. In fact, our right hemisphere, can grow throughout life and play is one of the best ways to grow it! Systems governed by the right hemisphere include self-regulation of various kinds and intersubjective responsiveness (emotional presence with others). These are fundamental to happiness and compassionate morality.

It can take some effort and courage to re-learn to play. I remember watching the film, An Unmarried Woman, where Jill Clayburgh acted silly, dancing around in her home (in her underwear, which of course is not a requirement!). I remember wishing I could do that. But I was too inhibited as a young person. Luckily, I eventually made a good friend who helped me learn how to play. We went sledding on a big hill. I couldn’t stop laughing. We went folk dancing where my stumbling was also amusing to me. We went hiking and camping. We sketched drawings of each other. We invented music on the piano. We could be silly. My husband and I are routinely silly now, making up songs for each other and finding ways to get each other rolling in laughter.

In honor of young child month (April), my students and I have put together a blog series on play. We will run one post a day for over a week, starting with this one. We focus mostly on children and play but many aspects apply to adults as well (see the list of titles below). We reference a variety of sources, including scientific research and research reviews. In this introduction, I provide additional written resources about play.

But to learn playing, you really have to find a friend to be silly with whatever gets you belly laughing.


Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown, M.D., with Christopher Vaughan: The first author is the founder of the National Institute for Play.

The Playful Brain by Sergio Pellis and Vivien Pellis: The authors are neuroscientists who study play and describe why we play and its benefits.

Essays on adult play

The Art of Play: Helping Adults Reclaim Imagination and Spontaneity by Adam Blatner, M.D., and Allee Blatner: This is full of ideas for playful activities and how to counter the prejudice against adult play.


The art of roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs Itby Anthony DeBenedet, M.D., and Lawrence Cohen, PhD.: Describes with drawings how to horseplay.

Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D.: The book describes a playful way to raise children that better nurtures close connections, encourages confidence and solves behavior problems.


Bekoff, M. (2002). Minding animals: Awareness, emotions and heart. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Burghardt, G. M. (2005). The genesis of animal play: Testing the limits. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Donaldson, F. (1993). Playing by heart: The vision and practice of belonging. Deer Beach, FL: Health Communications.

Fry, D. (2014). The environment of evolutionary adaptedness, rough-and-tumble play, and the selection of restraint in human aggression. In D. Narvaez, K. Valentino, A. Fuentes, J. McKenna, & P. Gray, Ancestral landscapes in human evolution: Culture, childrearing and social wellbeing (pp. 167-186). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Gray, P. (2014). The play theory of hunter-gatherer egalitarianism. In D. Narvaez, K. Valentino, A. Fuentes, J. McKenna, & P. Gray, Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution: Culture, Childrearing and Social Wellbeing (pp. 190-213). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Panksepp, J., & Biven, L. (2012). The archaeology of mind: Neuroevolutionary origins of human emotions. New York, NY: Norton.


1 Happiness and Growth Through Play

2 Playing with Heart

3 Children May Be Playing, But Their Brains Are Working

4 Is Pretend Play Good For Kids?

5 Playing at School: More Important Than We Thought?

6 Does Too Much Screen Time Make Kids Sick?

7 Infant Couch Potatoes

8 What's Better: Indoor or Outdoor Play?

9 Why Play with a Child?

More from Psychology Today

More from Darcia F. Narvaez Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today