Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.

Play is really the work of children.

Fred Rogers

Many of us have heard this well-loved quote from this well-loved children’s advocateIt may even be “old news” to you that play is important for childrenBut have you considered that play may “be the work” of adulthood as well? We’re going to talk a little bit about play and its impact on wellbeing, for both children and adults—why was play so important to Mr. Rodgers and why should it be important to you?   

But first—why is play important to me? Before joining The Wellbeing Partners as their Youth Wellness Coordinator, I spent many wonderful, play-filled years teaching preschool for Omaha Public Schools. I also have the privilege of working as a Lead Professor of Early Childhood Education at Aspen University, as well as, locally, an adjunct professor for College of Saint Mary. My number one job, howeverand the job in which I get to play the mostis as a mother to a precious two-year-old.   

I can also build my play-resume by noting that I am a very skilled play-er. As a child, I was passionate about Barbies, but I could—and would—play with anything. My mother loves to tell the story of needing to go to the grocery store when I was 3 or 4 and me refusing to leave, declaring incredulously that I was, “busy playing with my things!”—that day it was scraps of fabric. As an adult I still play. I play with paint, I play with words, and I play with anything sensory (water marbles and kinetic sand two favorites). I play with science when I cook, I play with spatial reasoning when I cram things into my closet, and I play with rhythm when I click my pens during every meeting I ever attend (sorry about that, co-workers!). My point is, I play, you play, we all should play—and that play is vital to our wellbeing.   

Let’s dive in.   

The fact that play is a necessary and important part of childhood is, hopefully, not a new conceptWhen children engage in play, they are developing their social skills, their motor skills, their creativity skills, their cognitive skills, their coping skills…and I could go on. Play directly impacts brain function. This, in turn, affects all areas of wellbeing. Play lowers stress, play allows children to make meaning of their experiences, and play is, in a very literal sense, how children learn.   

So, what does play mean for adults? Well, the actual play may look a little different, but the benefits are largely the same. 

Play supports mental health. 

Just like children do, adults can use play to relax and de-stress. Play can be a pleasing outlet of pent-up emotions or worries. According to this study, adults who describe themselves as “playful” have been shown to have lower stress levels or, rather, seem to be less effected by the stresses that they experience. There is a reason those desk zen-gardens were so popular in the 1990s! Additionally, and unsurprisingly, playful adults are also more pleasant to be around, which contributes to a less-stressful environment for everyone. 

Play supports social-emotional health. 

In play, children are practicing social skills through turn-taking, sharing, and negotiation. Many adults could probably use practice in those areas as well, but our play largely allows us to experience emotional connected-ness through mutual play. Engaging in play with others (adults or children!) is vital to a healthy relationship. In fact, as this article explains, parents playing with their own children get a special boost of social health support. It has also been shown that playful couples are generally happier in their relationship than couples who do not describe themselves as playful.   

Play supports intellectual health.

Mr. Rodgers and a whole host of researchers have confirmed that children learn through play, but so do adults. Play keeps the mind sharp and engaged at all stages of life. Regular puzzling has even been shown to keep dementia at bay in the elderly–this amazing fact was confirmed through brain scans, as this article shares. At all ages, play is our brain’s way of working thought the mundane. Conversely, “play deprivation” in childhood has been linked to psychopathic behaviors in adulthood, which clearly demonstrates the vital role that play has on intellectual health.   

Play supports physical health. 

It’s no surprise that physical health is impacted by all other aspects of health, and therefore all kinds of play—from Phase 10 to pick-up basketball games—positively impact physical health. Active play has added value for the physical body, as it serves as exercise which—surprise!—is great for physical health. Play has an added benefit of not actually being exercise, though. For those of us who cringe at the thought of a run, play is a way to keep the mind engaged away from the perceived drudgery of exercise. 

This is just a sampling of the benefits of play—there are many, many more and address each of the eight dimensions of wellnessFrankly though, I think we should turn off our screens and go play—which is what I’m going to do right now. 

Photo taken at the Art Works exhibit in the Joslyn Art Museum—a great place to play!

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