Not only is the importance of play for adults often unappreciated, the act of playing often gets a bad rap. Either it’s the stuff of childhood: an activity seen as infantile, meaningless, or even a distraction. Or, it’s compartmentalized as a part of our work-life balance: a routine insuring us against burnout or monotony.
And yet, inherent in both of these views is the assumption that play is still a largely unproductive activity with no inherent value—just something to pass the time and have a little fun.
Oh, how wrong we are.
While some of us might be familiar with the critical importance of play in early childhood development, very few of us think of play as foundational to what it means to be human. That’s right—what the science continues to show is that play is a fundamental component of human intelligence, decision-making, creativity, physical health, and all forms of learning.
Let’s take a closer look.
To begin with, the importance of play for kids is indisputable: play is a core part of every child’s development. According to leading child psychologists and neuroscientists, the activity is an essential method through which we learn all of the most basic life skills at an early age.
Mayra Mendez, for example, a psychotherapist and the program coordinator at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California, describes play as “a primary foundation for learning, exploring, problem-solving, and building an understanding of the world and your role within it.” This can include basic motor skills like balance, dexterity, stamina, flexibility, and body awareness, but it also encompasses social skills, emotional intelligence, and relationship-building.
Beyond this, play has been isolated as a key component in the development of one’s likes and dislikes, including the discovery of one’s passions. Here the Princeton neuroscientist Sam Wang and science writer Sandra Aamodt give the example of the Nobel chemistry laureate Roger Tsien. At only 8 years old, Tsien began conducting chemistry experiments in his backyard with used milk jugs and tin cans. As Wang and Aamodt note, it was this exploratory pastime that evoked an intrinsic curiosity for Tsien which would follow him for his whole career.
In other words, play can have huge and unforeseen impacts on us. And while we might not all go on to become Nobel laureates, we all know the self-exploration that comes from getting lost in something. For some of us, it’s precisely this kind of early age play that’s led to lifelong passions.
Well, let’s just say the benefits of play don’t have an age-limit.
In fact, it’s well documented that those of us who engage in some form of “adult play time” experience numerous health and learning benefits. As the site Mental Floss points out, playing builds neural connections to foster everything from critical thinking to empathy in children as well as adults:
The experience affects the connections between neurons in the brain’s prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that controls thought analysis and decision-making), helping kids develop executive functions like the ability to regulate emotions and solve problems. Research also suggests that pretend play helps foster abstract thought and the ability to envision other perspectives.
Additionally, the article points out that playing as a form of social development isn’t a process we grow out of: “Playing is how people make friends, whether it’s 5-year-olds playing with blocks or 30-year-olds playing a pick-up basketball game at the park.” That is, in the same way that we never stop learning, we also never stop refining our social skills.
But the importance of play for adults doesn’t stop here. Research continues to back up playfulness as crucial to adult psychology, especially when it comes to creativity, mental health, and intrinsic motivation. And what’s more, scientists have confirmed that the benefits of play for adult for lifelong learners. As several behavioral specialists put it:
Playfulness enables adults to distance themselves from others, from situations, and from conventions to approach situations with an open mind to find original solutions to problems, to confront difficulties, and to accept failure.
Chances are, you may already be incorporating play into your life without realizing it. Some of us describe this form of adult play as getting into a “flow,” while others might refer to it as their passion, the thing they do for fun, or even an active form of mindfulness. As the play expert, creative strategist, and toy designer Yesim Kunter told NBC News BETTER, “It’s anything you feel like doing without being made or forced to.” Or, put differently: “Being happy, relaxed, free, feeling like time is flowing, not constantly checking your watch — those things signify that you are in play mode.”
So, the sky really is the limit when it comes to “adult recess.” It might be playing a sport, gaming, sudoku, cooking, or something else entirely. What the science of play teaches us, however, is that these things should be done with a playful mindset—where you’re having fun without worrying about the outcome.
Maybe this fits the description of one of your hobbies, or maybe it’s time you found a new kind of passion project. Either way, next time you find yourself having fun, remember that play is more than just a break from work—it’s also one of the most basic and important forms of human growth.
By Gabe Kahan for Mission to Learn