Back Away from the Vacuum: Go Out and Find Your Playful Side

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Born to Be Playful

Play isn't a luxury, it's a biological necessity, says Dr. Brown, who directs the National Institute for Play, in Carmel Valley, California. Scientists at the institute collect research on play from such diverse fields as neuro-physiology, psychology, and molecular biology. These studies reveal that play is much more than a simple matter of fun and games. The impulse to let loose arises from deep within the brain stem, the same primitive area of the brain that controls basic survival functions like breathing. For this reason -- and because people in all cultures engage in it -- researchers believe that play is a fundamental need, crucial to healthy adulthood.

Play helps young mammals learn important life skills, but once they reach maturity the urge to play falls precipitously. Humans are an exception to this rule: Because our brains continue to develop throughout our lifetime, play remains a vital source of mental and emotional growth. Even into old age, play allows the brain to create new neurons, effectively forming new pathways for thought. In the elderly, for example, physical play has been shown to actually slow the progress of dementia.

Play is also a powerful antidote to stress. When you're having fun, you take deep breaths, which increases the oxygen flow to your brain and releases muscle tension. Play can also help lower blood pressure, reduce fatigue, and help counteract the negative effects of certain stress hormones.

Playing together can even improve your marriage by decreasing tension and strengthening your emotional bond with your spouse. Another bonus? "Research has shown that playfulness actually makes romantic partners more attractive to each other," says Charles E. Schaefer, PhD, cofounder of the Association for Play Therapy.

The psychological benefits are significant. When you play you become more exuberant -- and those temporary good feelings contribute to a general state of satisfaction with life that can persist beyond the end of the game. Researchers believe that's why playful people tend to be more resilient: They weather the inevitable ups and downs of life well because they've built up a reserve of good feelings to carry them through the hard patches. So when you don't allow yourself to play -- because you think you're too busy, or too tired, or too worried -- you're cutting yourself off from one of the best coping mechanisms designed by nature. "It's a tough world for everyone, but play produces a feeling of hope," says Dr. Brown. "And it's important to view the world with optimism."

Continued on page 3:  So Let's Play! But What?


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