Counselling psychologist Niamh Delmar explains why it's important for adults to develop their sense of play.

Playtime is not just for children. It can help us as adults to release tension and prevent burnout. In a world turned inside out with climatic events, the pandemic, and war, we need play more than ever. We are switched 'on’ so much every single day, releasing adrenaline and cortisol. We work hard at work and at home. Even exercise can be hard and intense. Our balance is off-kilter.

Work addiction is damaging to health and family life. The fall-out from such fast-paced living, overthinking and overdoing is detrimental to our physical and psychological health. Having fun releases endorphins enhances brain function, and promotes overall well-being. Laughter triggers feel-good hormones.

When you engage in play, you are experiencing enjoyment without having a specific target or result. There is no end goal to lose weight, win or achieve. You are simply having fun and are in the ‘play state.’ Play is enjoyable, voluntary, and done for its own sake. It helps to maintain balance in a world that stresses productivity and competitiveness.

When we are playing, we are keeping our brains flexible, boosting neurotransmitters, and sharpening our socio-emotional skills. Play also helps the production of new neural connections in the brain. It has been found to be a contributing factor in combatting depression and fostering optimism.

Learning is enhanced by play. Having a playful spirit keeps us in the present moment, lightens the stresses of adulthood and improves relationships. Having a laugh with someone releases oxytocin, the "cuddle hormone" that stimulates bonding.

According to the National Institute for Play, the instinct to play is hardwired in us from birth. Play circuits, located in the midbrain, are activated when stimulated by the environment. We may see a swing and have the urge to have a go, or spot a ball and feel like throwing or kicking it.

As we develop as adults, we tend to feel too self-conscious to play, or have suppressed this natural play emotion. We may see play as being unproductive or silly. Parenting, work, financial pressures, life events, commitments, and responsibilities can put a stop to our play.

Over the last few years, it has become apparent that more grown-ups want to play. Adult colouring book sales have skyrocketed and a Lego Brick café has opened in Dublin. Video and board games have increased in popularity and play experiences for adults, such as escape rooms, are in demand. Play for seniors is beneficial for cognitive health and emotional well-being.

Even some work environments are providing play areas with ping pong tables and other facilities. Play outlets in organisations can enhance learning, reduce stress, promote group cohesion and improve overall performance.

People play in a variety of ways as the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences explains. It may involve social engagement, the imagination, a mental fun challenge or just being whimsical. It is whatever suits you. Adult play activities include jigsaw puzzles, colouring, riding a bike for fun, playing fun games, playing with a dog, freestyle dance, singing happy songs, crafts, learning magic tricks, or interacting with a baby or child.

It may be something you enjoyed as a child. It is not so much about the activity, but your mental approach to it. Kicking a ball for fun is different from kicking it at training or at a match.

How to develop your sense of play

Identify what your fit is: is it playing socially, creatively, physically, or mentally? Think back to what you enjoyed as a child. Make a list of playful activities that appeal to you. Schedule time throughout the day to be in play mode. Sing or dance while doing housework, have games or sketchpads at work or look up jokes. Allow yourself some silliness.

Any opportunities that arise with children, grab them. This could be joining in a game of hide and seek or pretend play. Observing children at play awakens our own playful side. If you feel blocked or inhibited, explore what this may be about. You may take life too seriously, have been subjected to trauma, or are under too much stress.

Addressing these issues and accessing support can free up some space for fun times. Try something new regularly to create new neural pathways in the brain. Flying a kite, playing tag, trying a hula hoop, or playing with a remote control plane or Lego are just a few examples.

Meet up with others who share similar activities and make social connections while playing. If in a relationship, bring in some banter, jokes, and playfulness. Studies have shown that couples who report that play is an integral part of their relationship experience more positive outcomes.

Facilitating play time into your daily life will benefit your psychological and physical health, brain, relationships and work.

Resources

  • Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination and invigorates the soul by Dr. Stuart Brown
  • The National Institute for play - https://www.nifplay.org

Niamh Delmar joined Cormac and Sarah on Drivetime to discuss this article further on RTÉ Radio 1. Listen back above.