Fall is here and the holidays are just around the corner. The urge to get outside and enjoy the last days of nice weather has everyone excited to say, Let’s Play! Play is essential for human survival. It’s good for your mental health!

What happens in the body and brain when you play? Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute of Play, author of Play and Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D., author of Playful Parenting, each report that brains are made up of billions of neurons with connections between them. These neurons are bundled up into groups, called neural pathways. We have neural pathways for memory, attachment, emotions, language, motor control, each of our senses, and many more. When children and adults play many parts of the brain are activated at the same time. Play is the single best way to activate multiple neural pathways at same time. The brain "lights up" during a child's dramatic play: fine motor; gross motor; language; emotion; memory; abstract concepts like 'good guys' and 'bad guys'; scientific concepts like cause and effect; social concepts like 'taking care of baby'. And big themes like aggression, affection, loyalty, and power -- each with its own neural pathway -- we see all of them in children's play.

Gary Landreth, professor at University of North Texas, states that children act out their life experiences and feelings in a natural, dynamic, and self-healing manner. Play is the symbolic language children use for self-expression. When adults play, we begin to feel more positive because of a release of endorphins, and our stress levels go down. It calms and relaxes us while stimulating our brains and body. It helps us connect with others, and increases our energy level and excitement. It is the antidote for loneliness, isolation, anxiety and depression. It helps us feel happy, creative, and resilient.

You may ask yourself, what keeps me from being comfortable with play? You may think you may be judged, or you are too old to play. What about the fear of losing control or looking foolish, nah! Play is about letting go and having fun! Think of your best memory of play when you were growing up. If you were never allowed to play, you are not alone. Studies of inmates show many of them were not allowed to play as a child. While I am terrible at golf, I still love to play. Some people have the fear of failure or have the excuse “I’m too busy!” You will have more energy and feel better if you play, even if you are not that good at first. It’s not about winning or losing. It’s about taking risks, trial and error, or being more creative! You can even practice perseverance or just enjoy being with others!

When the Institute of Play asked the Cal Tech Jet Propulsion Lab the characteristics lacking in young successful engineers, they responded with the idea that older engineers had problem-solving skills developed from taking apart clock, building soapbox derby racers or fixing appliances during their youth. What seemed like a childish or frivolous pursuit was actually beneficial in the workplace.

Dr. Brown states “Life without play is a grinding, mechanical existence organized around doing things necessary for survival. Play is the stick that stirs the drink…Play is the vital essence of life.” So, “no,” you are never too old to play! Nursing homes use the Wii game system to get residents up and moving, and increase the social contacts. Many residents have fond memories of being athletic and participating in team sports when they were young. They can play without worry of injury and have a good time, playfully tease their fellow residents, and exercise.

The World Health Organization reports play is a right of all children. Whether it is “peek-a-boo,” puppet play, organized sports, board games, reading your favorite author, or watching your team play, play creates a sense of joy, adventure and excitement. PLAY ON!

Author's Bio: 

Janet Vessels is a mental health practitioner and a licensed professional clinical counselor. As the owner of the Center Child and Family Counseling, PLLC, she has practiced professional counseling for over fifteen years with children, adolescents and families. Her practice specialties are play therapy and a variety of trauma therapies including Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).