Can You Come Out and Play?
The play’s the thing to keep you young at heart.
In an article in Psychology Today, Dr. Chris Gilbert tells the story of her next-door neighbors’ 13-year-old pit bull, who walked with a limp and seemed uninterested in life. Trying to discover what might spark the dog’s interest, she threw an old tennis ball. The dog immediately ran to retrieve it and bring it back for another toss. Over several weeks, as their play continued, the pit bull’s limp disappeared, and she acted more like her younger self.
The moral of the story: when you find what gives an old dog joy, you may give them a new lease on life.
And what, you may well ask, does that have to with me, as I am not an old dog?
Just this: We know that children need to play, puppies need to play, kittens need to play, bear cubs need etc. etc. But elders need to play too. Contrary to folk wisdom, we never outgrow our need for play.
Allow me to explain.
In children, play is key to helping young brains develop fully. Through singing songs, playing games, stacking blocks, and pounding xylophones, children learn to communicate, they sharpen their motor skills, and they learn to solve problems. Play creates a foundation for formal and informal education.
Play has a different function for us as we age. Play helps keep our minds sharp and our outlook positive. Many studies have confirmed a strong link between playfulness and well-being in older adults.
Besides, why should children and puppies have all the fun?
Play for Play’s Sake
Lack of play also has consequences. In the 1980s, Dr. Stuart Brown led a study of homicidal young men and found that the absence of play was a common factor in their lives. He later studied animal behavior with Jane Goodall and concluded that humans are designed by nature to enjoy and engage in play throughout their lives.
Brown defines play as “apparently purposeless activity that’s fun to do.” In a TED talk he gave in 2008, he says engaging in play creates an altered state that releases endorphins, which in turn can contribute to optimism, joy, stress release, and a stronger immune system. Brown founded The National Institute for Play, to broaden awareness of the benefits of play for all ages.
Now let’s zoom in on our age group.
“Our society tends to dismiss play for adults,” writes researcher Margarita Tartakovsky in a paper on “The Importance of play for adults” (2012). “Play is perceived as unproductive, petty, or even a guilty pleasure…. But play is just as pivotal for adults as it is for kids.
“Play brings joy. And it’s vital for problem solving, creativity, and relationships.”
Obviously adult play and child’s play are different. When we talk about play or playfulness for older adults, we are looking at a wide range of activities with one common feature: they bring us joy. They may even be activities we are passionate about. We are also talking about a playful attitude in going through life. According to the research, older adults who are playful are upbeat – cheerful, positive, enthusiastic people. The playful adult also builds up more resilience to weather the inevitable hardships and heartaches that life brings.
Here are some ideas for playful practices and activities. Some are stupid. Some are beyond stupid. But I hope they spark some playful ideas of your own (and if they do, please share in the comments.)
Get down on the floor with children – grandchildren are ideal if you have some, or rent someone else’s. (Also, be sure someone is nearby should you need help getting back up.)
Learn to play the guitar.
Learn to play the guitar behind your back.
Take those piano lessons you gave up on as a teenager.
Write a song.
Compose a sonata.
Sing aloud. Blend your voice with someone else in a duet. Blend three voices into a trio. Take it on the road.
Perform at a karaoke bar.
Practice sketching nature, plates of fruit, or patient pets. Experiment with watercolors or oils. Become one with your brush.
Roll up your sleeves and stick both hands into a mess of wet clay. Sculpt it. Create ceramic plates and bowls.
Tie-dye your tee-shirts.
Master knitting. The world never has enough bright socks or warm sweaters.
Learn basic woodworking. Figure out how chairs and tables are put together and create some of your own.
Get into scrapbooking.
Keep a journal.
Learn to play bridge. Join a foursome.
Take up golf or tennis.
Go fly a kite.
Swim with the dolphins – or at least the swimmer in the next lane.
Take a class in comic improv. Amaze your friends with your witty repartee.
Dance dance dance.
Act in a play.
Play charades with friends.
Attend a murder mystery party.
Spend a day channeling one of the Marx brothers.
Go for a long hike in nature.
You get the idea. Enjoy yourself. Have fun. Follow your passions. It’s good for you.
And remember: You’re never too old to have a happy childhood.