Monday, April 27, 2009
Even adults should make a little time to play
Every day I play — sometimes for a little while, sometimes longer. I make a point to make time each day for a bit of lighthearted, joyful expression.
Children play constantly, as we assume they should. When my now-adult son was young, his daily shower was less about washing than it was about wishing. He'd stand under the steamy downpour with small plastic animals that magically transformed into talking adventurers involved in complicated quests. Ralph and I would listen from our nearby bedroom and smile wistfully, knowing how fleeting such moments can be. Soon our child would grow up, too big for fanciful dialogues with imaginary playmates, and playtime would be over.
For most of us, playtime ends when adulthood begins. Why should it? Being grown-up doesn't preclude the need for moments of fancy. It might mean that we need them more.
Stress-inducing situations constantly besiege the adult population. In the past week alone, my husband and I have grappled with the increasing rates of our family's health insurance, our pregnant daughter and son-in-law's struggle to secure a desired home from an online auction site before their baby is born, the breakdown of our refrigerator and numerous other less major, but still stress-provoking, problems. We've dealt with each of these issues in addition to our normal workload — just another typical week in the life of modern American adults.
Fortunately, amid all the mental clutter, we also took time to play. I doubt if I could handle the stresses of everyday life as successfully as I do without a daily break (or two or three) to reshuffle my mind set.
A 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that adults who regularly played cards or board games, did puzzles, read, wrote, danced or played musical instruments reduced their chances of developing dementia by up to 63 percent. What a simple way to maintain mental health! Although play is cheaper and safer than medicine, we routinely shrug it off as an insignificant, unnecessary indulgence.
Society tells us that play is for children, not for adults. I don't agree.
Reading is one of my favorite ways to unwind, but it's by no means my sole method of addressing stress. I play Scrabble and do Sudokus and crossword puzzles. I garden, watch the birds, jump on the trampoline, walk around the lake and go for quiet rows across still water. I also spend intimate time with my husband. It's a type of play often overlooked as a component of adult health. That's unfortunate because for adults, the physical element of a loving relationship provides such amazing benefits. It reduces stress, strengthens the immune system, improves cardiovascular health, reduces pain, acts as an effective sleep aid and increases self-esteem. It's also a great way to burn calories. But that hardly matters to a society that's too embarrassed to discuss the topic seriously.
I look back on my childhood and the young years of my own children with great fondness. Memories galore spring to mind of my own playtimes and, more recently, of the playful adventures of my now grown-up children. As I watch the people I love mature, I can only hope they manage to maintain many of the whimsical ways of their youth. It doesn’t matter if those ways manifest themselves on some athletic playing field, within the pages of a novel, through music, online activities, tactile explorations or through any of the many other avenues we grownups use to diffuse the everyday stresses of normal life.
The important thing is to make play a priority.
We are never too old, too sick or too weary to take a break from the serious work of being an adult. Play is too important to disregard, disdain or dismiss as ridiculous. Just the opposite — it might be the most serious and important form of self-help we can choose.