What if you made play as essential to life as sleep, food or water? Adults need to take a leaf out of children’s’ storybook imaginations and play to improve their overall health.
Scientifically speaking, play is as good for the brain as it is for the body. Animal parents in the wild keep playing and live long lives, and the truth remains: Humans are social creatures. Imagination allows you to dream all the things you can do and be — and do it with willpower and creativity. Plus, why keep your inner child stuffed inside all the time? No wonder you’re so grumpy with those achy aging bones.
As you get older, you forget what it means to imagine — it’s what mindful visualization should be, but only with the perimeters you add. You don’t abandon reality when you imagine, and this amazing ability continues to nourish your spirit and health throughout life.
The Importance of Play for Kids and Adults
Roughhousing and free play help develop social awareness, altruism, fairness and cooperation in animals and humans. It looks like utter chaos on the playground, but those little dinosaur banshee screams in preschoolers mean they develop problem-solving skills as they give chase.
When kids play, they learn how to form friendships. Mutual play helps kids listen to their peers’ perspectives, tell stories and be a part of something bigger than themselves. Play empowers autonomy while encouraging socialization and understanding of how to follow rules.
Think of something complicated you recently tackled. You took several approaches until you reached a breakthrough, and that means playing. Sometimes, the best approach is diving right in and see how a thing does and doesn’t work. Kids only become afraid of making mistakes when adults drill that into their heads. Don’t sacrifice your inner child and forget the importance and power of play.
What Researchers Say About the Power of Play
Kids form friendships and perform better academically with recess as a part of their school time. Sadly, 40 percent of school districts reduced recess due to budget cuts. Parents might think that’s not so bad, since kids can focus on school and avoid playground bullies. However, 47 percent of kids have experienced bullying by third grade, both on and off the playground. Recess actually remedies bullying and helps develop positive socialization and communication skills.
When friction does occur, guided games and timeouts ease the atmosphere and provide a fun, freeing structure. In adult circumstances with friction, mediation, narration and taking time away from the situation help ease tension. Playground rules apply to real life, and your imagination also gives you the ability think from a different point of view.
Kids who participate in recess or gym and are more fit and perform better on academic exams. Grade school students with at least 15 minutes of recess show better classroom behavior than those who don’t. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends at least 60 minutes of daily activity for children as their personal time, which schools shouldn’t take away or abuse. Similarly, adults who take time away from their desks to get out and about also perform better at work and feel better.
Playing also prevents mental decline as you age, and 80 percent of adults get insufficient exercise. Netflix and chilling with your favorite wine helps you unwind, but it won’t hurt you to move your couch potato butt once in a while. Older adults who exercise regularly are at less risk for cognitive decline. Brain teasers, crossword puzzles, swimming, dancing and playing with the grandkids all keep the brain active. Tube time really does turn you into a vegetable. Take heed.
Remember What the Freedom of Play Feels Like
Don’t feel afraid of looking silly. Let your inner child out to play to relieve mental and emotional stress. Imagination expands your thought processes, maintains and generates new neural networks, and cheers you up. Play naturally helps you filter through challenges and various scenarios to see how things naturally work out.
Consider how time becomes irrelevant when doing what you love. You’re engaging in play. You feel new again. What’s wrong with that feeling? Nothing.
Bring dart guns into work and drag a few co-workers away from their desks during breaks to play — in an area without fragile items. Make a friend with an old oak tree in the park, and claim it as your new reading spot. When you pass by the swings, jump into the sand and plant your butt in the seat. Swing as high as you can to get a new perspective on life and make your feet tingle.
Play teaches adults and kids how to get through boredom and difficulties and reach fun and positive breakthroughs. Life is filled with both pleasure and pain, and the playground sees both the rough and sweet. Playing as an adult means you have earned a black belt in imagination. Don’t separate work and play.
Play matters for self-regulation and the ability to make-believe about possible worlds outside the self and personal experience. What rules and routines in your life could do with a little shaking up with free play? Close your eyes and use your greatest superpower — make-believe.
Jennifer Landis is a mother, wife, and the editor of Mindfulness Mama. Follow her on Twitter @JenniferELandis
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