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The Mental Health Benefits of Play for Adults

The intentional inclusion of play in our lives as adults can often be neglected. Or rather, it can be one of the things we ‘know’ is important and still is hard to make time for. We get caught up in the responsibilities of work, family, and other obligations, setting aside little time for play. However, taking the time to engage in play can have significant mental health benefits for people of all ages, including adults! Here we will explore the ways in which play can benefit mental health, and how to incorporate more play into your daily life.


Reduced Stress and Anxiety


One of the most significant benefits of play is its ability to reduce stress and anxiety [1]. Research has shown that engaging in play can help reduce cortisol levels, a hormone associated with stress. Play also stimulates the production of endorphins, the body’s natural mood-boosting chemicals [2]. This can lead to decreased feelings of anxiety and increased feelings of calm, joy, pride, and excitement.


There are many different ways to include play in your daily life intentionally. You could join a sports team, take up a new hobby such as painting or photography, or include game nights with friends and family in your social calendar. Making play a regular part of your routine supports a more consistent reduction of stress and anxiety, rather than an afternoon of temporary relief.


Increased Creativity and Imagination


Another benefit of play is its ability to boost creativity and imagination. When we engage in play, we are often using our imaginations and coming up with new and creative ideas. If you have any children in your life, this is a wonderful chance to learn from them - to admire the way they turn their environment into whatever they need during their play.


To incorporate more play into your life for this benefit, try setting aside time for creative activity. This could be anything from drawing or sewing to pottery. Joining a creative group or class to meet new people and learn new skills is another way to make sure play stays on your calendar!


Improved Cognitive Functioning


Play can also improve cognitive functioning, including memory, attention, and problem-solving skills [3]. When we play, at any age, we are often challenging our brains and working on new skills. This can help improve cognitive functioning and keep our brains healthy as we age [4]. One way to incorporate more play into your life might be by trying to engage in activities that challenge your brain (but don’t make you feel overly frustrated or starts any negative self-talk).


This could be anything from playing a new board game to learning a new language or trying an instrument you’ve always wanted to play. Puzzles and brain teasers are other ways to support keeping your mind sharp.


Conclusion


Play is an essential part of sustaining our health and well-being as adults. We’ve only just scratched the surface of what play can do - help reduce stress and anxiety, boost creativity and imagination, and improve cognitive functioning. There are many different ways to incorporate more play into your daily life, from daydreaming to taking up a new hobby to dancing around in the kitchen.


Try out different ways to include more play into your life, and see what feels natural and easy - better yet, fun! If you are looking for more resources on play’s benefits or how to incorporate play into your life, check out PEDAL Hub’s website. You can find a variety of resources and articles on all things play related!



About The Author: Sydney Conroy is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge at the Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development, and Learning (PEDAL). She previously received her Master's in Psychology at Seattle University, Bachelors in Science at Michigan State University, and completed a play therapy certificate at Antioch University Seattle. Sydney has also worked as a therapist with children, young people, and families in both a community agency setting and private group practice at Eastside Play Therapy. Her current doctoral research explores different intersections of play therapy, trauma, and exclude perspectives - including but not limited to children's voices in their mental health care, and play therapists voices in research.


References

  1. Conroy, S. (2022). Four Playful Ways to Help With Anxiety. PEDAL Hub. https://www.pedalhub.net/play-pieces/post/four-playful-ways-to-help-with-anxiety/

  2. Trezza V, Baarendse PJ, Vanderschuren LJ. The pleasures of play: pharmacological insights into social reward mechanisms. Trends Pharmacol Sci. 2010 Oct;31(10):463-9.doi: 10.1016/j.tips.2010.06.008. Epub 2010 Aug 3. PMID: 20684996; PMCID:PMC2946511.

  3. Cicchino, Marc I. "Using Game-Based Learning to Foster Critical Thinking in Student Discourse." Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning 9.2 (2015):

  4. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 2015, Vol.9 (2). Web.4. Kramer, A. F., & Erickson, K. I. (2007). Capitalizing on cortical plasticity: influence ofphysical activity on cognition and brain function. Trends in cognitive sciences, 11(8),342-348.

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