Play is not just for kids - it can also bring joy, relaxation, and creativity to adults. In fact, incorporating play into your daily life can have numerous benefits for your mental and emotional well-being.
If you're looking for ways to add more playfulness to your adult life, this guide is for you. Discover what play is, the benefits of play, and explore seven potential play paths that will help you tap into your "inner child" and have fun. Let the games begin!
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Why is play for adults important?
Play is often seen as something reserved for children, but it is just as important for adults. Engaging in playful activities can have numerous benefits for adults, including reducing stress, boosting creativity, improving problem-solving skills, and enhancing social connections.
Play allows us to let go of our responsibilities and obligations for a while and simply enjoy the present moment. It can bring a sense of joy, relaxation, and fulfillment to our lives. These are things everyone needs, not just kids.
But what is play, really?
I'm glad you asked! When I say "play," I mean something very specific. The word "play" here refers to an interaction between two or more mammals. But more specifically, the interaction is between two nervous systems. Play is an unconscious biological process occurring between two individuals.
You see, play is not just throwing a ball back and forth. Play is much more.
Play is when a mammalian body is mobilized while safe. In neurobiological Polyvagal Theory terms, play involves accessing one's ability to use their flight/fight system (sympathetic) along with their safety system (ventral vagal parasympathetic).
Which of these examples is play?
I will give two examples to illustrate what is and is not play. You tell me which one of these is play:
Two friends are playing basketball. They smile and laugh with each other, making eye contact, even when one is losing.
Two friends are playing basketball. They don't make eye contact or smile. They yell at each other and shove. When one loses, they kick the ball as far as they can. The winner laughs and taunts the loser.
In both scenarios, the individuals seem to be playing, right? I mean, there's a ball and points involved. But these examples have starkly different feels to them.
Example 1 is play. Both individuals have access to their ability to be mobile, using their flight/fight system. But they also have access to their safety system, allowing social engagement. They unconsciously provide each other with safety cues, a process called co-regulation.
Example 2 is not play. Neither individuals have access to their safety state, resulting in breaking the norms and rules of basketball and relationships being forever broken, most likely.
What's the difference between the two? The activation of the safety state. When the safety state is active, one's flight/fight activation is calmed. The mobility of flight/fight can be used for play and social engagement rather than survival.
Play does not have to be mobile.
One more qualifier - play is mobility combined with safety. But play does not have to involve movement. Someone sitting down can still exist in their flight/fight state and their safety state. Play simply means the flight/fight mobility state is active with safety. That doesn't mean you are running around or biking. It can be much more subtle.
Safety is essential for healthy minds and bodies.
Play isn't just fun. Play is beneficial to your mental and emotional well-being. Of course, there are lots of exercise benefits to play.
But besides that, when playing, the safety state is active. The body's homeostatic processes are optimized for improved health and healing when the safety state is active. The more time you spend in your body's ventral vagal safety pathways, the better it is for your overall health.
Does this mean you should be playing nonstop? No, of course not. Accessing the safety state can happen in others ways as well, like in meditation or sharing a hug with someone.
7 Ways to Play for Adults
Now that we have an understanding of play, let's look at 7 ways to incorporate play into your life.
1. Incorporate Physical Activity into Your Routine.
Sure, you can exercise and get helath benefits from it. And you can feel great doing so. But remember, play means something very particular in this discussion. Play involves being with someone else, being mobile and accessing your safety state.
So instead of being active alone, be active with someone. A few ways to be active with someone are:
take a walk or ride a bike
go to the gym
play a sport
2. Explore Creative Hobbies and Crafts.
Just like #1, engage in hobbies and crafts with someone else. Yes, it's always okay to exist in peaceful solitude and let your creativity out. But doing so alongside someone else can invite play.
I used to get together with a few friends every Friday night and draw. Each of us loved to draw and could do so on our own just fine. But being together invited more energy, smiles, and laughter.
3. Play board games with loved ones.
Board games are another example of play without obvious mobility. You are still accessing your flight/fight system when playing a board game.
For example, we get loud when my family and I play games. We have energy. It's not a quiet, passive experience. Even with Battleship, I like to make sounds of explosions and simulate explosions with my hands and arms. My 7-year-old son loves it. He laughs hysterically as we play.
Pick your favorite board game and invite someone to come play with you.
4. Play video games.
Video games are a great way to interact with each other... even though a screen is involved. Video games use the flight/fight state, as many of them are competitive. But as long as you are anchored in your safety state, the flight/fight energy can be contained and turned into play.
Video games are often tense, loud and competitive. My family loves Mario Kart... and it gets intense! But along with the intensity is congratulations and encouragement.
5. Work with someone.
Work?! As play?! What?
Yes, work can actually be play! Work can be doing chores, making dinner, creating a podcast, or even actual paid work. Remember - play is mobility along with social connection.
You're mobile when doing chores, but if you're with someone, it can be play. My kids used to volunteer to help me with chores around the house, like pulling weeds or cleaning the pool. They'd get their hands dirty with me, but we'd smile and socially engage as we worked.
Long-time listeners of my podcast will remember that I co-hosted with Mercedes. She and I worked on the podcast week after week, but we played a lot too. As we were working, we would joke around, use our imagination and laugh nonstop. We were working, but playing.
6. Find social activities with other adults.
If initiating play is difficult for you, or you don't have a clear avenue for incorporating play into your life, find other possibilities for adults to connect and engage in play. There are ready-made options for you to join. Some possibilities for adults social play activities are:
amateur sports leagues
art or music clubs
Option 6 is great because the work is done for you. Someone else has set it up, they're just waiting for you and others to find them and join. Option 6 is also a challenge, because meeting and interacting with new people is not easy.
7. Play with the kids in your life.
To be clear - I don't mean random kids. I mean the kids you already have in your life. Like, your own kids, or nieces and nephews... you get the idea. (Right?)
If you suck at playing, that is totally okay, because kids are f***ing great at it. Put the ball in their court next time you're with one of your kids. Just say, "Alright, it's time to play. What are we doing?" And give them control. Trust me, they won't let you down. You need to be open to trying something they're into, like LEGO, dolls, or whatever kids are into.
And if all else fails, throw or roll something. It'll get that child's interest, and they'll know what to do. Before you know it, a game will evolve from nothing. Boom! You're playing.
How to start playing as an adult.
It can be difficult to start playing as an adult, especially if you don't have a strong history of healthy play with others. Plus, we adults get sucked into the things that cause stress and tend to prioritize those things. When we try to focus on play or connection, it feels like the stresses will get worse. Here are some tips to help you start playing as an adult:
Be drastically honest with yourself - Are the things causing you stress truly going to worsen if you allow yourself to play? Or do you have an opportunity to allow yourself to connect with someone and have fun?
Turn off your phone, tablet, and other screens - Once distractions are off, you can use your pent-up flight/fight energy.
Give yourself permission to feel silly - Play can involved imagination and spontaneity. Now that you know this, give yourself permission to feel it.
Before you play, build your Polyvagal safety state.
You can approach play more easily if you develop your safety state. When you do, you will be able to tolerate the activation of flight/fight that is required in play. Anxiousness will instead be felt as fun and excitement.
If you know you need to develop your safety state more, Building Safety Anchors might be a good fit for you. BSA teaches you all about the safety state and then teaches paths for building the strength of your safety state.
As you build the safety state strength, your defensive activation will be reduced and even repurposed into something else. Flight/fight is turned into play with safety. And shutdown immobilization is turned into stillness. But the safety state is the center piece in all of this.
Building Safety Anchors is available along with my other courses and private community in the Total Access Membership subscription. You get all my trauma recovery courses, private community, daily challenges, second podcast, live Q&As and more. I can't wait to see you there!
Strengthen Your Personal Boundaries
When your body shifts into a defensive state, you may compromise your personal boundaries and values to get out of the situation. If you can relate, check out this blog to learn what you can do about it.
Q: Why is play for adults important?
A: Engaging in playful activities as adults can reduce stress, boost creativity, improve problem-solving skills, and enhance social connections. Play allows us to let go of responsibilities and enjoy the present moment, bringing joy and fulfillment to our lives.
Q: What is play, really?
A: Play refers to an interaction between two or more mammals, specifically the interaction between their nervous systems. It involves accessing the flight/fight system along with the safety system, creating a state of mobilization while feeling safe.
Q: How can adults incorporate play into their lives?
A: Here are seven ways to incorporate play into your life:
Incorporate physical activity with someone else, such as taking a walk, playing a sport, or dancing.
Engage in creative hobbies and crafts alongside someone, inviting more energy and laughter.
Play board games that activate your flight/fight system and bring excitement to social interactions.
Enjoy playing video games with others, channeling the competitive energy into playful engagement.
Find opportunities to turn work into play by doing chores, creating projects, or working alongside someone else.
Join social play activities for adults, such as amateur sports leagues, art or music clubs, or trivia nights.
Play with the kids in your life, giving them control and embracing their natural ability to play.
Quotes from this Blog:
Play involves being with someone else, being mobile, and accessing your safety state.
Work can actually be play! Work can be doing chores, making dinner, creating a podcast... As we were working, we would joke around, use our imagination and laugh nonstop.
If you suck at playing, that is totally okay, because kids are f***ing great at it. Put the ball in their court next time you're with one of your kids... Boom! You're playing.
Justin Sunseri is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Coach specializing in trauma relief. He is the host of the Stuck Not Broken podcast and author of the book Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm. He specializes in treating trauma and helps individuals get "unstuck" from their defensive states.