I’ve been in Japan for the past two weeks relaxing, eating, walking and — yes — playing. I haven’t worried about work or the kids or my life back in the states. So it was apropos when I stumbled across this Picasso quote at a museum in Hakone: “It took me … a lifetime to paint like a child.”
Picasso spent his life *working* to become more playful. Yet so many adults — including myself — do the opposite. The older we get, the less playful we become. As an only child growing up in upstate New York in the 1970s, I spent my free time roaming the woods behind our house; I rode bikes with kids in the neighborhood; and I got lost in books for hours and hours (thank you, Lucy Maud Montgomery).
Those activities are the definition of play: imaginative, self-directed, intrinsically motivated and guided by rules that leave room for creativity. Play can provide a significant amount of joy without offering a specific result. It can feel silly, unproductive and time consuming, which is precisely the point. Play is easy to recognize in children and animals — an impromptu game of tag or chase — but what does it look like in adults?
As adults, play is often low on our list of priorities. We’re living in a world that’s more conducive to anxiety than playfulness. In the never-ending to-do list of adulthood, play can feel like a waste of time. We exhaust ourselves with tasks we should or have to do, but we rarely have time or energy for activities we want to do.
Yet researchers say play benefits adults by releasing endorphins, improving brain functionality, and stimulating creativity. It can help keep us feeling young and energetic. Play can improve our memory and stimulates the growth of the cerebral cortex. Play also triggers the secretion of BDNF, a substance essential for the growth of brain cells.
Playful adults do exist — and we should emulate them. Researchers categorize playful adults into four types: “those who outwardly enjoy fooling around with friends, colleagues, relatives and acquaintances; those who are generally lighthearted and not preoccupied by the future consequences of their behavior; those who play with thoughts and ideas; and those who are whimsical, exhibiting interest in strange and unusual things and are amused by small, everyday observations.”
If you don’t see yourself reflected in any of those descriptions, don’t despair: “A less playful person can learn to be more playful, much like an introvert can learn to be a better speaker by observing the techniques extroverts use,” says René Proyer, a professor of psychology at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg.
I’m just now, at age 52, understanding how essential play is to my mental health as an adult — it’s a basic human need that’s as important to well-being as sleep. Instead of waiting for my annual vacation, I want to incorporate play into my everyday life. But I’m not quite sure what play means to me outside of vacation, yet.
Do you play? Tell me all about it and give some suggestions in the comments! If you don’t play, what do you wish you could do, and what’s stopping you?
Though I struggle with my purpose at 55 with no children, I play almost daily by making friends with nature, walking around and opening my eyes. Today, there was a Katydid on my back patio. I approached her but made no sudden moves. Eventually, she turned and flew on my shoulder. I wanted to take a bunch of pictures so I had to reach up to get her but that scared her and she flew to a pine tree close by. Fortunately, she wasn't that far up the tree, so I put my hand out and she walked onto my finger. I then took us to my porch bench and put her on the purple mum next to it. At last, great pictures of a Katydid!
I retired after living as a driven workaholic, building my career at a time when it was dominated by men. I had to learn to play after retirement and now enjoy being a prolific craftivist. I'm not artistic at all but I dabble in different art forms even tho 99% are total failures (in my perfectionist eyes) but I take comfort in the fact that nobody has to see my lame attempts and I had fun doing them.
I play! I make friends with people with children and then spend time with them seeing the world through their eyes! (Although I am about to have my own grandchild soon!). I sew toys for children, make fairy gArdens, I still can get lost in books! I love saying words that feel funny in my mouth over and over! Try shropshier! Fun, right? I am currently grieving the loss of my mom and my sense of play has gone out the window. My therapist and I are trying to ease it back into my daily life. I do feel younger when I am playing!
I'm fortunate to be able to ride my bike at least 10 miles at a time 3 or 4 times a week in a neighborhood that incorporates a lot of hills and wooded areas. So, it feels a lot like childhood again when I'm doing it, especially going DOWN the hills on winding roads. Another low impact form of play I like is reading to my 6- and 3-year-old grandchildren books that enable me to role-play different voices of the characters and sound effects in the story.
I love playing and I’ve been talking about this with people in my life for awhile. I have two daughters ages 7 and 5 and I play WITH them. Whether it’s pretending we are on a boat when we are in bed, or playing dolls, school, pizza cafe, puzzles, talent show… and I especially love going to the park with them. I feel sad that playgrounds have age limits. I always say I would love a grown up playground, to swing and slide and explore. It’s like as a kid you get to be a kid, then you have to “be cool” as you age and when you become a parent you get to be a kid again. But not forever, because then your kids get older and have to “be cool” and I’ll be the embarrassing parent still desperate to play…
I am playing all the time, the world is our playground, we just have to see it and learn from others if we tend to forget. I wake up and know it is going to be a great day, even if it does not go the way I want, I always look for the silver lining. It is always there, I know, my husband left me for a younger person, and I am alone at 60, but hey, after crying a day or 60, I thought, this is it, I am the one sad, no one else, I can choose to go on this way or life like I never did before. And that is what I did...and i have been reading only uplifting and fun books and listening to Stephen Bartlett and learned so so much from this young man...you have to follow your dreams and make your dream and dream your dreams... life is short, so so so short, do not waste any time! I have some 6500 days of life left, I have to make them count, all of them....I play this game every day to be just one bit happier then the last, and smile and laugh harder then before...and I talk to myself, a lot, and I laugh with myself a lot, and i ride my bicycle and play the race game, to drive so fast that i do not have to stop before the red sign, I play that I am very important at work and people depend on me for there smiles and I do all I can to make them smile or be happy...It is a fun game and it rewards you with a smile from a complete stranger. I play with the 7 grandchildren and we are pirates or we go to the shop with just 5 euro to get as many fun goodies as possible. life is fun, and I so so so get this playing bit, I am now going to the shop and put my Mp4 player on and sing loud with y favorite music. That is another game I play, wondering who will know what i am listening to. My latest game is how to find more friends...now that is a challenge, but I can do this! lets play!!
At 73, I still wonder why, or how, without obligation. Last year, looking at an old computer, I wondered. Taking it apart, cutting the wires, pulling parts off, down to the circuit board. Wondering what a naked circuit board might look like, found acid that eats solder and unearthed the beauty of thousands of tiny lines connecting to other lines, heat sinks with unique designs, and hard drives with powerful magnets deconstructed. Soon, friends were dropping off their computers and it became an obsession. I now have a table full of empty circuit boards in different colors, heat sinks of different designs, and magnets stuck together into an everchanging sculptural piece. What will it be or why do this are irrelevant. It was just playing with stuff. Playing as if no-one is watching.
I've been a working artist most of my adult life, and have found play an essential component of making art. But even I have additional need for playfulness. When the economy crashed in 2008, art buying took a big hit and I REALLY needed more playfulness in my life. I'm still at, drawing panda cartoons. Pandas are great teachers when it comes to playing.
Another place to look for playfulness are picture books. There are some great ones being written and illustrated today. Picture book authors and illustrators spend a lot of time imagining "what if" scenarios, and it might help people access that inner place where playfulness resides. Picture books aren't just for kids.
I recently committed to adding play into my life and a friend and I are going to Disneyland in a few weeks! I’m so excited. 😂
A few weeks after I joined a new Fortune 100 company, it named a new CEO. One day he appeared unexpectedly in my office door. Seeing that my bookshelf was full of toys, he stepped in, picked up and started shooting my ray gun, which flashed red lights and made loud science-fiction movie sounds. That was the day I met the best boss out of 52 bosses in my career ... and I was lucky enough to work for him twice.
At least once each winter I make a snow angel. I rediscovered play when my kids were little. We'd stomp in puddles and rescue worms from the sidewalk after it rained. Crunch the first thin ice on those puddles in the early winter and build a snowman with the first sticky snow.
I've learned not to take myself so seriously all the time and if feels good!
Such a fun topic!
For me, playfulness starts with my thoughts and words. My husband laughs because I am always saying 'that's fun' or 'that could be fun', pretty much about anything.
So I laugh at a weed in the garden before pulling it out.
We have skunks (live on an old cattle ranch) that dig up my yard, almost every night. Each morning as I smooth the holes over with a rake I think, "ha, take that you little stinkers."
Life is a lot more fun when you take it a little less seriously.
After retiring from a very intense job as a corporate writer/editor, I needed a break from perfection. I found it in watercolor where water is “in charge” and I had to let go and go along for the ride. Now I’m experimenting again with abstract art and having so much fun!
It's in my nature, and I'm so glad for that. Playing with kids up to about age 10 has always come easy for me. I recall how I played as a child (some people don't have much memory of that). I can be "silly" in various ways, and not just with kids. In my 70's, I still like to bring whimsy into my wife's life, drawing cartoons, making silly arrangements with objects around the house, writing ditties, whatever comes into my imagination at the time. (But I try not to overdo it! There's a limit.)
I also love recreational drumming (and other rhythm instruments) with groups of kids, teens, adults, seniors. you name it. We play, we create, we let down our "defenses" and share happy moments with each other.
I play every week when I attend a Zumba class. It's a great physical activity, set to upbeat music. I've also made a few like-minded friends.
The benefit of having grandchildren is an excuse to keep playing ❤️🤩 There’s nothing else like it!
While thinking about this, I didn’t think that playing with Children in our lives counted but I see many here share that play as I do my my Grandchildren. My 4 1/2 year old grandson who lives very close by is my BFF. It is amazing to watch how kids can create “play” doing almost anything…even riding in his car seat in my car. It’s such a shame that we lose that ability/ motivation when we become adults. I would like to turn more of my retirement time into play time with adult friends. Great article!
I try to dance a little bit every day, sing to myself and find every opportunity to find wondrous moments in my everyday
My son gave me a set of flower Legos for Mother’s Day. I finally made them this week. It was playful & creative. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed playing laying Legos when he was little! I will play with Legos more often. It was a very satisfying experience.
I color. I dance. I LOVE to play. Sometimes, it feels naughty. Being so unproductive. Hehehe
I am 70 years young. I enjoy play with my children and grandchildren, being spontaneous and goofy. Many people look and me and shake their head. Most children just love playing and enjoy just goofing around. Just today, my partner of over 45 years and I were walking by a pond and spotted these tree trunks arranged like one to three for step stools. It was so fun just hopping from stump to stump! Spontaneous and with no thought to the “proper” way for an adult to behave. I also ride bikes and ski and hike with friends and children and always rejoice in the spectacle of the moment. Life is short. Enjoy it now (Death whispered in my ear, LIVE, I’m coming.)
Legos! I have several hundred random bricks I got at the bins at a used brick store. Every morning I pick one to start with and allow myself 10-20 minutes to assemble something peculiar. I take a picture of it then disassemble it.
After far too many years of 60+ hour work weeks in an office that only expected more of my time, I realized what was missing from my life, that which made me the happiest as a child and in my twenties—the creativity that 'play' allowed. Now, I 'play' through my travels and novels, which allow me to follow my obsessions, architecture, art, and gastronomy. As soon as I started writing, that youthful energy returned—it felt I was being recharged, wandering planets to experience the architecture, art, and cuisine that end up in my books. Add a few restless spirits, and some more than spirited wolves and grotesques, I have become a child again.
It took about 3 improv classes in 2019 before I was bit. I always tell people it’s like play for adults. It’s so fun and silly -- I always feel better after class or rehearsal with my team.
Plus it was a lifeline during pandemic when we moved to Zoomprov and I met new people around the country. AND!! I went to summer camp with 150 or so other improvisers this summer In Pennsylvania -- total joy!
I’m often very playful and silly with friends, I play with words, with my dogs, sometimes while running I’ll break out dancing, and I want more play!!
Playing at life is such an easy way to move forward every day! “Play with it” is a simple way to stay child-like in our sense of discovery in life. So be it! Yes 🥳
haven't had a silly game of basketball in a while with my children And grandchildren due to lack of honest communication over a span of years leaving us estranged And distant And oh roller skating is so fun And something i don't need my children or grandchildren to do And once settled in my States over move maybe some roller skating may be somewhere to find.
Will knee pads & elbow pads add to the silliness at 53? Probably!)
Best thing I’ve read in a long time. I’ve always loved play and valued fun, but sometimes life gets overwhelming and I forget. Thanks for the reminder!
My favorite place to turn for playful inspiration will always be the forever amazing Dr. Seuss.
And in second place is Mr. Rogers. I grew up watching him, and he is still an inspiration to me.
Finally, I just dragged my husband along for the 3rd time this week to look at all the Halloween decorations cropping up around town. He humors me and comes along. I’m 55 and this still thrills me!
I like going to the car wash . Haha
I'm naturally impish and childlike but also quite serious-minded and self-critical. Lately, with all of this middle-aged adulting to do (and not to mention my talent for absorbing the grief and disillusionment of the day to day disasters of the world)...a lot of my natural positivity and optimism has been muted and I've been more closed-off and isolated.
I pledged at my last birthday early in September to - at least once every day - experience or create something new "a new input or output", I called it. A poem, a song, an idea, a new tactic, learning a new fact, adopting a new way of moving through the world, a new way of paying attention. It's kept me a little bit less face-in-phone, a little more fluid and open and observant. It's resulted in some nice synchronicities, but it is not specifically _playful_. I think I forgot HOW to play. Looking below for some ideas...!?
When I go for walks in my neighborhood I almost always hear the birds singing. When I feel as though they’re through I’ll whistle a bit myself. They almost always respond but a bit differently than before. It makes me wonder if we’re having a conversation.
There is a cat nearby whom I’ve befriended simply by squatting down to her and talking softly. She’ll stop whatever she’s doing just to get petted, then roll on her back.
For some historical perspective, in the late '70s, I was producing a conference in L.A. to ignite a community but people were scared to be real with one another. I just posted a report on that era, and this is from that, about the conference: "It was to explore 'community,' among the people in Los Angeles who were at the forefront of the Human Potential Movement. Although everyone wanted closeness, the teachers and authors I spent several months working with planning the event were entrenched in separation. To counter that, I spent four years producing ELF Enterprises Unlimiting. The motto was, 'Put the elf back in self,' and ELF stood for Enlightenment, Love and Fun." Play was a modality that changed everything. Give people a costume, and, when free of being who they think they are, it's amazing what happens to them!
After working all my life in the corporate world I became a transitional Kindergarten teacher. For the past five + years I get to play (and teach) with four and five year olds and they are really interesting people. My life is full, filled with joyful play.
We create art projects, play in the sunshine, learn about math, science and my very favorite thing to do is reading with them.
Maybe I'm taking the idea of play too literally, but I've got 4 kids and 6 grandkids and, while I have nothing against screens, I spend most of my time playing. Whether traditional board games or inventing Pirate scenarios, I try to avoid tv time, it really helps lighten the load from daily headlines.
I play! It’s how I approach much of the writing I publish on here, and framing it as play helps me enormously when I trip up into the big esoteric Why of why am I doing this difficult thing called writing. I set myself tasks, like to describe the room I’m in, and then off I go, using it as playtime & seeing what I produce with no high stakes risk of pleasing or impressing anyone. It’s working well for me. My whole relationship with the act of writing and producing work has changed. Thanks for bringing up the topic. Loving your work-play!
Wow! I can soooooo relate! Problem is, in a nutshell, given my lifelong career-goal-setting, "playing" (i.e., being creative!) feels "indulgent", even tho I'm no longer pursuing those goals. And, even more ironically, my first career was as a graphic designer & art director!
You should reach out to John Cohn, IBM Fellow Emeritus, this has been his mantra for decades. Check out his videos online, you’ll see what I mean.
Oh my, yes. But I am retired with no children, no grandchildren, no husband, or wife, no serious responsibilities. I play all the time.
What's worse than adults not playing is adults stopping children from playing.
Stop finding different ways to walk and move, just count steps.
Stop mucking around with your friends at the park and go and compete in a sport with lots of rules made up by adults, organised by adults and surrounded by adults shouting at children.
Parents could do worse than get on their hands and knees and play alongside their child and see where they lead.
This was an inspiring read, so thank you! I would like to become more playful with my work (photography), and am hopeful that will come with time. I do love playing games with our daughter – I specialize in making up stories with animal figures, Playmobil people, building with Magna-Tiles and crafting some kind of narrative that ties everything together. It won't last forever though, she'll grow out of it at some point (sniff)...
Every breath, being in a state of joy is play.
Check my insta profile to see how I play! Every piece has happy, fun, sometimes good words (check the pins I create)....this has been the best discovery ever - at age 55. G.Wooldridge.Art
I am 60 and haven't grown up yet - so my wife keeps telling me.
I have the really annoying trait of being eternally optimistic and happy-go-lucky. I am fortunate that I work with children (mostly Primary school age) every day, I live in a forest and walk my dogs 2 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the evening and I play a few team sports. In the UK we have something called Rabble, an organisation that sets up playground games - but for adults. It is truly awesome. One of my favourite quotes comes from Calvin & Hobbes 'Becoming an adult is probably the dumbest thing you could ever do!' Shannon, it's never too late to become young!
I play all the time. But I am in my 50s and retired. I have no children, no grandchildren, no husband, or wife, and no serious responsibilities. I can do whatever I want whenever I want for however, long I want. It is luscious.
I so relate to this. Play can be a way out of despair and dark times. It can be a way out of the trance of the every day. It's finding the joy in the most simple things which are ultimately the most important. Yesterday on my run it was raining and all the birds had come out to play. I ran with the fantails flying beside me, diving in and out. I laughed and felt so filled to the brim with joy. I also love my micro pauses in my day which include getting up from my desk and putting on my favourite dance tunes and dancing like no one is watching. Which they are not luckily as I work from home! But who cares anyway. Play is a way of getting back to your mojo. A play on my name too - Jo, Joy, Mojo. It's a nice reminder of what is available to me when I can take the world too seriously sometimes. The very act of responding to your invitation also brings out the joy and play. Thank you for a great article and the sense of community it has inspired. Jo 💃🏻🏃🏻♀️🙏🏼🧚♀️🦋 - sorry, couldn't stop playing with the emojis. 😊
I am 70. As a retired teacher of young soecial needs students, I was used to playing and still do. Walks in the woods have me talking to the animals as I avoid the people. Lol. Good morning, Mr. Possum, hi toads, i hear you Miss Wren! Plus, I enjoy decorating junk journals and makng my own greeting cards. Google Junk Journals and you might get intrigued to make one! Playing games with friends is also a pasttme. I love having tme to play and read!
I was dazzled by a flock of autumn leaves flying horizontally by my car last fall. Right afterwards I saw a wonderful lawn sign that said “Choose Joy”. I now have that embroidered on the backs of my baseball caps. I am going to have a bumper sticker made that says that!
Garrison Keillor said something like, "We have to tell people to get back to work, but never, to get back to play." I think what most of us really do on our phones is play. We are customizing and jumping around with our visual, audible attention. Play! Play is a state that can't be further broken down. It is not a particular emotion. We can do it when we are mad, grief-stricken, annoyed. Ask any expressive artist. It definitely transforms emotional states because play is rooted in creativity/creation, which makes it the benign, humble, love-home of all species as long as we are not buried under the need to survive. In my experience it fosters intimacy and long term relationships better than anything else, even when we've been at war and contributes to genius. Nothing to sneeze at? I am a devotee as the cofounder of InterPlay: an active creative way to unlock the wisdom of the body. Check out my book. Wheeee.
Play makes me think of laughter, movement and joy all tied up nicely into a bright colored bow. I’m thirty and freshly married (2 weeks in). My now husband and I have tickle fights, it’s one of my favorite things about our relationship because of how outrageously silly we become. We also use very strange words, made up words like booga monster, and make our lips get stuck under our teeth in public. It feels like we’re just kids most days and it brings such fun into our day to day.
As someone planning a trip to Japan next year I’m curious to know what form of playing you did there and where you went .