Play On!

By Marilynn Preston

May 14, 2015 5 min read

At Healthy Lifestyle U, The Juiciness of Play is one of our most popular courses, especially in spring, when everyone's looking for a reason to play hooky.

Once you understand that play is not just fun and games but rather essential to the conscious life, a spark to joy and creativity, and a way to lose ourselves to find ourselves, you can give up feeling guilty about play and insist on being playful right to the end.

Adult playmakers ride bikes and fly kites. They kayak down rivers, hike up mountains and otherwise make time to enjoy whatever calls to them -- walking in the woods, going fishing with the family, playing cards, restoring a 1967 Mustang.

Play helps make us healthier, happier, calmer, more cooperative. Developmental psychologists see it as a survival technique in our Darwinian struggle to "defy the depressing and dangerous aspects of life," according to esteemed play-theorist Brian Sutton-Smith, who died March 7 at age 90.

The New York Times obit called him the "Scholar of What's Fun," the prolific and precedent-setting author of more than 350 books and articles about the nature of play and what it means to our well-being.

Sutton-Smith -- who called his field of expertise "the metaphysics of play" -- was a founder of The Association for the Study of Play, and his extensive library and writings are part of The Strong, which is the national museum of play, in Rochester, New York.

There's a museum of play?

"Play was always intended to serve a healing function, whether for child or adult," wrote Sutton-Smith in 2008, showing us his scholarly side. "Play begins as a major feature of mammalian evolution and remains as a major method of becoming reconciled with our being within our present universe. In this respect, play resembles both sex and religion, two other forms ... of human salvation in our earthly box."

So how much play is going on in your earthly box? Think about it. If the answer is "too little" or "not enough," then read on and inspire yourself to break free of guilt and find time in your day, your life, for more play.

PLAN FOR PLAY. Kids need to play -- and suffer from lack of it -- and so do adults. What you choose to do in your leisure time can improve your brain function or dull it; it can stimulate your mind and boost your creativity, or it can put the mind to sleep, and next thing you know, you're ordering commemorative coins and steak knives on late-night TV.

When you build play time into your day -- Scrabble at home, pingpong in the workplace -- you trigger the release of your own endorphins, allowing a river of joy to run throughout your body, making play a much smarter stress reliever than Johnnie Walker or a dozen boneless chicken wings with blue cheese at Buffalo Wild Wings (1,336 calories).

PLAY AND RELATIONSHIPS. The family that plays together really does stay together. Research shows that sharing fun and laughter with others can foster empathy, compassion and trust. Play brings joy, vitality and resilience to relationships, the experts report, and can be used to heal emotional wounds and bring on other positive shifts in our being.

JUST FOR THE HEALTH OF IT. Doing the things you enjoy is not just fun but also very, very good for you.

This just in, from the Annals of Behavioral Medicine: "When people engage in leisure activity, they have lower stress levels, better mood, a lower heart rate and more psychological engagement -- that means less boredom, which can help avoid unhealthy behaviors," reports professor Matthew Zawadzki, a health psychologist with the University of California, Merced, who led the study.

It's crucial that the leisure activity be one that is thoroughly engaging, Prof Zawadzki warns, because too many distractions -- stopping to tweet, to post pictures -- negate the positive effects. And it turns out that the positive effects last for hours, continuing to ease your stress, nourish your brain and improve your mood.

NEXT STEPS? This part is up to you. Get your family, friends or work colleagues together for bowling, miniature golf, even karaoke. Plan a hike, a bike ride, a pickup volleyball game. The possibilities are endless; the payoff is, too. And in honor of Brian Sutton-Smith, leave your cellphone in the car.


"We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing." -- George Bernard Shaw

Marilynn Preston's weekly column, "Energy Express," can be found at

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