Can playing as an adult be good for you?

Jan 17, 2014

You may think playtime is just for children, but research is showing that spending time just playing may be good for your health as an adult. Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen, hosts of WRVO's health and wellness show Take Care, recently spoke with Gwen Gordon, an expert in the scientific benefits of play.

Lorraine Rapp: What can you tell us about the actual health benefits of play?

Gwen Gordon: What we have found is that the benefits are myriad. It’s almost as if we’ve discovered like a super food of behavior – the kale of behavior, if you will. That’s because benefits are physical, psychological, emotional, social. And play is so fundamental to our development. But we now know in early childhood that play is critical for helping us navigate the complexities of social relationships, understand ambiguities. You know, when we rough-and-tumble play, we navigate -- what does this really mean, what are they saying? And all that practice really helps us develop a more complex and nuanced ability to deal with social relationships, which is central to human life. One of my favorite theories about play is that it’s really like training for the unexpected, because life is full of uncertainty. So it’s uncertain physically. When we play we’re trying things that we’re surprising ourselves, we’re learning different moves, we’re kind of intentionally tripping and trying, because it’s more interesting and fun to do something that is novel, and be ambushed and to chase. All the benefits of any physical exercise or movement, when we play physically are available to us. The bottom line is that play keeps us from rigidifying. It keeps us flexible, open and aware of a wider environment than we would be if we weren’t exploring it. Every species basically does better. When they overly specialize or rigidify they can’t adapt. So we’re more adaptable.

Lorraine Rapp: What types of play? And are some more beneficial than others, or is it just what you personally enjoy the most?

Gwen Gordon: Personal enjoyment is critical. And there are so many varieties of play. That’s one of the interesting things about studying play, is what does gambling have to do with soccer, have to do with putting on a play, have to do with chess – really different forms. And the most important thing is that you enjoy it and it’s engaging – you’re actively involved. So passively watching somebody else perform or resting on the beach, while wonderful, wonderful things, you’re not getting the benefits of play. The kind of play that’s most beneficial is, I think, the kind of play that has the most complexity -- that engages you physically, socially and intellectually. I think a shared game, I also think games that don’t have winners or losers – so my preferred play is improve, whether it’s theater or dance and movement.

Linda Lowen: Sometimes there tends to be, as adults when we play, we really think we play sports, and there’s an agenda. The agenda is to win. The agenda is to be better than everybody else? That really not a part of play?

Gwen Gordon: Playfulness is an attitude that’s lighthearted, that’s more open, that doesn’t take itself seriously. And as soon as there’s a goal, we can get pretty darn serious, and competitive. One of the conditions for play is that we need to feel safe and sometimes the rules help make us feel safe. So board games can be easier to play when we know what is expected of us and there’s a winner and loser. So we might actually get the benefits and joy of play with any kind of game. But anything can become non-play if we start taking it seriously and confuse it for real life.

You can hear more of this interview WRVO's health and wellness show Take Care, Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.