The Importance of Play
Play may seem like “kid stuff”, but it is paramount to our well-being. Research by Dr. Stuart Brown found a strong correlation between success and playful activity (interestingly, Dr. Brown’s previous research on murderers illuminated that a lack of play in childhood was a common characteristic in killers’ backgrounds…it seems all work and no play can make one homicidal, not just dull boys and girls).
Embracing play also makes therapy more successful. In addition to the establishment of safety for psychotherapy to begin, clients braving novelty is also required (Ogden, 2015). Novelty is defined as:
~the quality of being novel; newness; freshness
~something new; fresh or unusual; change; innovation
Novelty is interconnected with play. Embracing newness with curiosity enables us to be P-R-E-S-E-N-T. Being truly present is being mindful (noticing without judgment), thus, play is a mindful practice. Let’s face it: it is hard to not be present when we are having a fun. The present moment is where fun happens; we are not fretting about the future or lamenting the past.
The seeking of novelty and its relation to play was the basis of a study by Wood-Gush & Vestergaard (1991), which suggested that the presence of inquisitive exploration “curiosity” in six litters of domestic pigs equated to their success of mastering their environment. It appeared that the pigs that were given the same environmental specificities kind of “gave up”, whereas consistent newness kept them actively engaged. We are not unlike those pigs. Openness to Experience is a basic personality trait and one of the five core personality dimensions known as “The Big Five” factor model of personality. Openness is positively correlated with high levels of curiosity and creativity. People with high levels of openness are more receptive to new experiences and ideas, have more active imaginations, a greater appreciation for aesthetics and beauty, are more likely to try new things (like PLAY!), adapt more readily to changes in environments, and possess higher levels of happiness and increased overall well-being.
The positive emotions of excitement, passion and joy that come from play contribute to expanding the upper edges of one’s Window of Tolerance*. The Window of Tolerance is a term used in therapy to describe the zone of arousal that people need to function most effectively. When one is within this zone, they are more able to receive, process, and integrate information without excess difficultly. Increasing our Windows of Tolerance increases emotional intelligence, cognitive functioning, and overall coping. Play brings vitality, creativity, connection (to Self; others) and joy to our lives. Think of the sense of awe and wonder that small children experience as they discover new things every day.
For all of these detailed reasons, I often give clients a play “prescription”.
To summarize: play is not just for kids. Neuroplastic change requires newness. Resist feeling as though you need to be a master at something and embrace play. Permit yourself to look foolish and embrace the therapeutic value of humour. There may be security and predictability in doing what is familiar, but it doesn’t lead to personal growth.
Seeking novel activities and pursuing new adventures increases your well-being.
It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.
~D. W. Winnicott
* The term Window of Tolerance was first coined by Dr. Dan Siegal in his book, Mindsight. When one moves out of their Window of Tolerance, their nervous system responds by going into animal defenses (fight, flight, freeze, submit/feign death). The two reactions to moving out of the Window, is hyperarousal (feeling overwhelmed, elevated) or hypoarousal (shut down, zoned out).
Dr. Stuart Brown: Play is more than fun. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/speakers/stuart_brown?referrer=playlist-the_importance_of_play
Ogden, P. & Fisher, J. (2015). Sensorimotor psychotherapy: Interventions for trauma and attachment. New York, NY: W.W.Norton & Company. D.G.M Wood-Gush & K. Vestergaard (1991). The seeking of novelty and its relation to play. Department of Animal Science and Animal Health, Royal University, 13 Bulowsvej, DK-1870 Frederiksberg, C, Denmark. doi.org/10.1016/S0003-3472(05)80243-X