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I know men who play golf, men who play tennis, men who play their kids' computer games, and men who play poker. I know one man who plays Hacky Sack and another man who can bounce a quarter on his foot as though it were a Hacky Sack. And even the men I know who don't play those kinds of games, responsible married men with a job and kids and a mortgage to pay, still seem inherently playful. Nashville once got an uncharacteristically heavy snowfall, and a friend of mine was changing the baby, still half asleep, when her husband tiptoed up, wrapped his arms around her and whispered into her ear, "Let's have a playdate!"
She thought he wanted sex. What he really wanted was to go sledding.
It's not exactly astonishing that sledding had never crossed my friend's mind. "Men make play a priority," says Barbara Brannen, author of The Gift of Play: Why Adult Women Stop Playing and How to Start Again. "They may clean out the garage on the weekend, but they'll play golf first. Women, if they play at all, tend to do it after everything else is done."
The problem for frazzled multitasking women -- who are not only working at jobs, as men do, but are also serving a second shift at home and often a third shift with their elderly parents -- is that there's hardly ever a time when everything's done. "The level of responsibility most women carry often makes them put play on the back burner," says Stuart Brown, MD, author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. And once that happens, it's a lot harder to let go and have fun even when the time and circumstances are right. It doesn't help that every toddler in the world seems hell-bent on self-destruction, which makes parenthood, especially at first, a perpetual exercise in risk assessment. Maybe all those years of asking "is it safe?" have turned you into someone who doesn't remember how to ask "is it fun?"
Plus, be honest: As you've gotten older, haven't you started to tsk-tsk any sign of silliness in others? Sure, there are still some free spirits among us who hop up on a curb and pretend to walk a tightrope. But too often -- admit it -- this kind of carefree behavior makes you raise your eyebrows. "Too many women believe that once they're grown up they have to put away childish things," says Kathleen Hall, founder and CEO of the Stress Institute, in Atlanta. This probably explains what happened last summer when my friend Louise, 46, spent a full hour riding waves on her nephew's boogie board. "The other women on the beach said things like, 'Wow, you certainly looked like you were having fun out there!'" Louise says, "but it was obvious they were thinking, 'You weirdo.'"
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."
Figuring out what kind of play is good for the mind and soul can be a little tricky. Playing chess is very different from playing tennis, which is totally different from playing charades, which is nothing like playing in a garage band. And all of those activities are different from flying a kite or riding a skateboard, which in turn are different from playing poker or bridge. Some of the most enriching forms of play don't, on the surface, look much like "play" at all. Creative activities like painting pottery, beading a necklace, or doing embroidery can be playful, too. Whether or not something qualifies as "play" really depends on the individual. An activity that's pure fun for one person can be a source of annoyance or anxiety to another, points out Dr. Brown. "If you take an introvert who's into knitting and force her into a Frisbee game, she's going to be totally miserable."
Play, then, is a state of mind rather than a specific activity. To derive its full benefit you must enter it with no goal beyond the simple one of seeking pleasure in the experience. "When you focus on the end product -- to get in shape or to beat an opponent -- rather than pure enjoyment, you're turning play into just another form of work," says Dr. Schaefer. In other words, if you're playing tennis because it's fun and it lifts you out of your daily rut, then you're truly playing. But if you're "playing" tennis primarily to stay in shape, you're just working out -- and if you're playing mainly to improve your game, you're only practicing.
Ultimately, this is what makes playtime different from other forms of rest and relaxation. It feels great to sleep late; it can be emotionally nourishing to meet a friend for coffee and catch up on each other's news; it's a real pleasure to sink into a deep chair with a good book and a steaming cup of tea -- and you should make time for all of these delights. But they don't provide the same sense of exhilaration, the same whee! as playtime.If your playground skills are rusty, try these tips for reconnecting with your inner child:
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2010.