The Secrets of Play

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One of the goals of the New Zealand early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki, is for children to experience an environment where their play is valued as meaningful learning and the importance of spontaneous play is recognised.  Most people recognise that play is necessary and valuable for children.  Most people also adopt the belief that we grow out of the need for play, and see play for adults as unproductive and unimportant.  However, play is hugely beneficial for people of all ages. “We don’t lose the need for novelty and pleasure as we grow up” (Scott G. Eberle, Ph.D)

Secret Number 1: Play is beneficial for everyone
One of the obvious benefits of play is that it is fun and hence brings us happiness and joy.   This helps to reduce stress and improve our physical and mental health.  Another less obvious benefit of play is that it develops skills involved in problem solving and creativity.  Play also helps to form and strengthen connections between people.  Studies have shown that the old adage “couples that play together, stay together” is in fact true.  Play helps couples rekindle their relationship and explore other forms of emotional intimacy.

Secret Number 2: What is adult play?
Sometimes the reason adults don’t think that play is for them is because they look at what children do for play and they feel unable or uninterested in doing those things anymore.  The activity of play for adults is different to that for children.  Play is essentially anything you do that is purposeless and pleasurable where the focus is on the process of the experience itself and not achieving a particular goal.  Psychiatrist Stuart Brown, MD, founder of the National Institute for Play notes that play is art, books, movies, music, comedy, flirting and daydreaming.  Play can be walking your dog, singing to your favourite music or building model aeroplanes.  Play is anything you do simply because you enjoy it.

Secret number 3: How do we learn to play more?
The first step in learning how to play more is giving yourself permission to play and accepting the value of spending time doing something simply because it gives you pleasure.  Many of us need to let go of feeling guilty doing something that is not externally productive. Following on from this, many of us adults have lost touch with what sparks joy for us.  Here are some questions to help you identify what gives you pleasure:

What did you love doing when you were a child and what did you want to be when you ‘grew up’?  Do these things still excite you?  How could you incorporate them into your life now?

What makes you smile?

If you had unlimited time and finances what would you do?  How could you incorporate aspects of that into your life now?

Once you have given yourself permission to play, and identified some activities that give you pleasure the next step is to begin scheduling in some regular time to engage in play.  New habits are easier to form if you start with regular small bites rather than whole-scale changes.  You may start with taking 20 minutes each evening to sit down and draw or colour-in, or ten minutes each lunch hour to practice juggling.  As you become more comfortable with the concept of play you will find it easier to engage in spontaneous play as well such as taking  5 minutes to watch the clouds and imagine images they form, or to sing along with the radio when you are driving in the car, or to wear your favourite dress shoes to the supermarket.  And of course, many of us like to play with a hula hoop.

Go on, go play!

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