The Importance of Play

As children, we are encouraged to play. Play increases pleasure, as well as enjoyment. In fact, the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights states that "play is a birth right for every child." However, at some point between climbing the jungle gym at recess and studying for college finals, the practice of play seems to get lost.

Play is universal; regardless of race, social status, or resources, individuals can engage in some sort of activity, whether it be running around outside, climbing a rock wall, learning how to do a headstand, or practicing the piano. It is exploration. Architectural spaces are specifically designed for social interaction. Even times are blocked out of the day, to encourage kids to interact with one another, use their bodies, and explore their surroundings. Think about school playgrounds, parks, dance studios, skating rinks, etc. Play encourages mental growth, physical stimulation, and socialization — all fundamental stages in development.

So why do we stop play at adolescence? Playing is seen as childish. Institutions — such as schools, sports team, and businesses — teach us to be disciplined. They want their members to behave in a way that is structured, getting rid of that child-like mentality. However, disregarding play actually stunts growth. Not only do we lose external validation from outsiders who praise our work, but we also lose personal advancement.

Play is an intrinsically motivated practice, with both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Part of play is having fun, and having fun elicits a bodily response of reward, where dopamine is released. Play also releases norepinephrine, which helps increase attention, learning, and motor skill action.

If there are so many benefits, then why do we get embarrassed and stop playing? We get over scheduled, overworked, and lose the sense of being overjoyed. While some adults continue certain ways of play, like sports, debate, or musicianship, it often becomes about the act of winning rather than enjoying and learning.

When was the last time you truly played? Was it a game of tag with the local family you babysit for, was it an acting class, perhaps a role-playing game you play with your friends? Perhaps finding a practice of play, such as taking a yoga class, swimming in a pool yelling “Marco Polo,” or even learning a dance routine on YouTube can be a great substitute for the seemingly endless joy of being a kid running around on a field with your friends. Allowing yourself to play and learn new skills ─ even in adulthood ─ can have serious benefits, so go out and play!