As a budding school therapist, I’ve had to introduce myself to many new forms of play the past few years. I wholeheartedly believe in the magical power of play can transform, heal, and educate children. Since I began my career working with infants and toddlers, I thought I was well versed in play – not to mention its importance within the context of development. Its reach extends further than we realize.
As I got older, I found that I was lucky to grow up in an environment that was inherently silly. My parents, sister, and I were often dancing, singing, playing games, and pulling ridiculous pranks on each other. My Dad still sends me daily jokes he thinks are “punny”, which is surprisingly uplifting. I do not believe it’s possible to create authentic relationships at any stage in life without play. One thing that has struck me in working with older children is the sense that it’s uncool to play after you reach a certain age. I think all of us can relate back to our middle school selves and remember how exhausting it was to constantly care about what others thought of us. As we age, we seemingly develop the feeling that we need to manage others’ perception of us to seem “cool.” That feeling can be amplified in adulthood as we navigate relationships in new and different facets of life. Words like “goofy,” “silly,” or “childish” seem to be at odds with qualities like being a hard worker or being driven in American culture. We believe our worth is based upon how much we can get done or how much others like us.
Children are curious, funny, authentic, and see things through a lens of innocence. If that’s being childish, then why not? Why can children play with such reckless abandon without fear of shame or discomfort while adults cringe at the thought of singing or dancing in public?
Throughout the world, play reveals our humanity. Across multiple studies, it has been found that playfulness in adulthood is not only extremely beneficial to our physical and mental health, but necessary for optimal functioning. Play has been shown to relieve stress, improve brain function, boost creativity, increase and improve connections with others, increase energy, and heal emotional wounds. These benefits extend to our loved ones as we are playful in our relationships. Neuroscience supports the old hypothesis that laughter really is the best medicine. As Brené Brown wrote, “Laughter, song, and dance create emotional and spiritual connection; they remind us of the one thing that truly matters when we are searching for comfort, celebration, inspiration, or healing: we are not alone.”
There are many simple ways to incorporate more playfulness into your daily life. It can be as simple as learning some jokes to share with coworkers, trying a new board game with loved ones, dressing up for Halloween, or snapping goofy photos to send to others. Use fidget toys as an outlet for anxiety, invest in a small zen garden, sing, dance, be goofy. Carve out time in your busy week for unstructured play. Any moment in life can be made playful. It doesn’t need to be time consuming or costly, especially as we think of playfulness as a state of mind rather than an individual activity.
In summary, my message is twofold: first, when we care less about how others perceive us (we don’t have any control over it anyways), we leave more space to be ourselves. Second, play helps our brains navigate this tumultuous world. Stay playful, y’all!
Written by Maddie Smith, LMSW School Based Therapist at Tanager Place