The Power of Play

Why cutting loose is so good for our mental and physical health — and how to do it more often.

Woman on rollerblades

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was planned in a prepandemic world, where a soccer game or a night at a roller rink was something we didn’t think twice about enjoying. The world has changed since then, but the importance of play for our mental, emotional, and physical health has not. Indeed, the value of play may have only increased during these past months of intense collective worry and restricted social options.

We’ve seen the healing power of shared fun as people around the world have flocked to online happy hours, on-demand Zumba classes, and backyard wrestling matches with kids and pets. As one of the experts in this story points out, these are the things that make us human.

Now more than ever we need to be able to reconnect to what brings us joy and what allows us to play, and to appreciate being alive, regardless of whether we are doing this online or in person. It’s in that spirit that we bring you this story. Let it remind you why, even in difficult times, you still get to — and need to — let go and have fun. — The Editors

Two years ago, I fell in love. It happened by accident. I was looking for a fun first-date activity and discovered a pop-up roller-dance event at a nearby nightclub, where 1970s disco gear was encouraged. I hadn’t skated at all since I was a kid, but it all came back to me, even as my date spent most of the night clinging to the wall.

That romance would not last, but I did find passion. Now I skate and rollerdance whenever time allows. Why? Because it’s fun. I adore the clothes (fishnet stockings! sequined mini-­dresses!), and I enjoy the company of the other skaters I’ve met. It’s also great exercise that happens to feel like flying.

Before I rediscovered roller skating, I had forgotten how it felt to pursue an activity solely for fun. Pretty much everything I did was related to my work as a writer and teacher. That included catching a movie (I watched for plot and structure), taking a walk (gathering sensory details to use later), even chatting with friends and family (ideas for essays and stories come from somewhere, right?).

And if I wasn’t doing something work related, I was talking about work — at parties, over dinner with friends, even in therapy.

I am fortunate that I love both of my jobs, but my work–life balance had tilted toward the former. I was at risk for burnout and its associated ills: sleep problems, anxiety, and a weakened immune system. (For more on those risks, see “How to Overcome Workplace Burnout”.)

Roller skating has nothing at all to do with my professional self. When I skate, I lose all sense of time and abandon my self-consciousness. I experience what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as “flow” —  complete absorption in a creative, playful, or otherwise challenging activity.

We’re happiest when we’re in a flow state, Csikszentmihalyi argues, and play — activities we pursue purely for fun, with no end goal — is a good way to get there.

Still, landing in that zone is just one of play’s many benefits. It also makes exercise more fun, relieves stress, enhances creativity, and builds relationships, among other things.

Despite these dividends, play is “often thought of as extra, and it shouldn’t be,” says New York City–based clinical psychologist Michael Alcee, PhD.

“Play is not a frill. It’s what makes us fully human,” he explains. “It is a catalyst, if you will, for all these other important things in our lives: knowing ourselves, connecting with others, and tapping into the creativity that makes life both meaningful and fun.”

You may not love roller disco and sequins as much as I do, but there are plenty of other ways to rediscover play. Find something that fits who you are, whether that’s an athlete or an artist. Some clues to your ideal activity may emerge when you recall who you were: How did you like to play as a kid? How can you rekindle that joy today? Perhaps some of these ideas can (re)inspire your sense of fun.

Physical Play

In her 20s, Samantha Jones spent almost every weekend night dancing at local clubs. But a decade had passed since the Minneapolis-based editor’s last dance night when her younger sister invited her to join her for a Zumba class.

The first one was a bit of a disaster, Jones recalls. “I didn’t smash into anyone, so that was good. But I spent most of the class feeling agonizingly self-conscious and wondering how on earth anyone knew all those steps.”

Still, she loved the salsa and reggaeton music, so she kept returning — and, a decade later, Zumba has become a key part of her life. “I have most of the steps down by now, but more important, I’m having too much fun to worry about it!”

Zumba has helped improve her coordination, which in turn has benefited her yoga practice. “The choreography provides just enough structure to be a challenge,” she says.

Better yet, she adds, Zumba has helped her loosen up mentally. “It’s hard to take myself too seriously when I’m doing a body roll.”

This kind of letting go offers a cascade of benefits. Researchers have reported that laughter supports the immune system by releasing neuropeptides that ease stress. And vigorous physical forms of play, such as Zumba, can also reduce levels of cortisol and other stress hormones, boost endorphin production, sharpen memory, and enhance creativity.

Finally, good hard play can also improve problem-solving. Because your unconscious mind stays active while your conscious mind is focused on something else, setting aside a stubborn problem to dance — or go for a run or throw a Frisbee for your dog — can often give your brain the space it needs to find a solution.

Other Types of Physical Play

  • Outdoor sports like soccer, basketball, and skiing
  • Playing catch
  • Any type of dance class or an at-home dance party
  • Interactive video games like Dance Dance Revolution or Just Dance
  • Sidewalk hopscotch
  • Playing fetch with your dog

Social Play

Even before this year’s pandemic, ­Americans were suffering from a loneliness crisis. Nearly half of the ­respondents to a recent survey ­reported they “sometimes or always” feel alone or left out. Social play — gathering in groups to do something fun — is a ­reliable antidote to loneliness.

We may appreciate this even more today. As the popularity of online happy hours, puzzles, and games now shows, we depend on other people to help us stay mentally fit.

For Vanessa Barthelmes, her community has been a lifeline. So has tumbling through the air inside metal rings and hanging from silk scarves. The Florida-based author and fitness coach credits circus arts with helping her cope with a major depressive disorder.

“Circus, a lot of the times, was the only thing that got me through,” she says. “Everybody roots for the next person — we all want everyone to do well and learn new tricks. So, not only are you playing on your own, but you’re playing with other people as well, and skill sharing.”

Many children now grow up playing games only on screens, which can be isolating. One company, Electric Playhouse, is trying to change that. “Our goal is to get people up off the screen and engage with other people [in the household], playing games where they have to use their bodies,” says cofounder and CEO John-Mark Collins.

Based in Albuquerque, N.M., Electric Playhouse uses projection with motion-tracking technology to create games like Powerslide, which requires players to stay on one of a series of moving dots.

There are important evolutionary reasons for social play, and we can see its value in the animal world. It’s not about learning to fight or hunt, says Stuart Brown, author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagina­tion, and Invigorates the Soul. “Cats that are deprived of play-fighting can hunt just fine. What they can’t do — what they never learn to do — is socialize successfully.”

In the human world, he writes, “Kids at play can learn the difference between friendly teasing and mean-spirited taunting as they explore the boundaries between those two and learn how to make up when the boundary is crossed.”

Those lessons don’t end in childhood. “Adults at cocktail parties learn similar social guidelines about how to get along with others, or how to seem to.”

These are all good reasons to find ways to engage socially — and playfully — no matter what our current circumstances.

Other Social-Play Possibilities

  • Board games, card games, Twister
  • Virtual games played in real time with others
  • Puzzles with family
  • Trivia night
  • Family band
  • Live dance classes, online or in person

Outdoor Play

Every summer of his 12-year marriage, school social worker Jim Schaldach and his spouse have taken a canoe trip into northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters wilderness. They paddle to a remote campsite and spend their days swimming, talking, playing cards, and staring at the horizon.

“Nothing resets the system like spending five days outside in nature,” he says. “It reawakens the senses. All those parts of me that get so overloaded by the demands of work and daily life, the Boundary Waters opens up again. I feel the positive effects all year long.”

Playing outside can be particularly beneficial for mental health. “Just five minutes spent in a pleasant natural setting will start to shift your mood, cognition, and nervous system,” explains Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix.

And we are built to benefit from the great outdoors. Trees, for example, release a substance called phytoncides. These contain antibacterial and antifungal properties that protect the trees, and they may support the human immune system, too.

Research shows that a daily dose of morning sunlight helps combat depression. And exposure to soil in an outdoor environment can help improve the diversity of your microbiome.

But most important, playing outside means you get to use your outdoor voice — and there’s plenty of room to run around without damaging the furniture.

Other Ideas for Outdoor Play

  • Frisbee, tag, and other outdoor sports with your family or household group (physical, social, and outdoor benefits — three for the price of one!)
  • Camping
  • Swimming in a lake, river, or ocean (includes handstands in the water)
  • Yoga in your backyard or a park
  • Gardening

“Once you start playing, and noticing the opportunities for play, your whole mindset will change,” says Kylah Morrison, a London-based leadership coach who challenged herself to try a new form of play every day for 100 days.

“Play has helped me appreciate that there are so many more interesting and even enchanting things in nature right under our noses that we don’t notice when we are simply focused on a task at hand and our to-do list,” she says.

Her challenge has reaped long-term benefits. “Like a physical muscle, this appreciation of beauty has been strengthened and now happens naturally.”

is an Experience Life contributing editor.

Leave a Comment

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Newsletter Signup
Weekly Newsletter
Special Promotions