The power of play and its innumerable benefits

I had gotten home late from work and was greeted at the door by my eight-year-old granddaughter, Alexis. It had been an especially trying day and I was exhausted and frustrated. She led me by the hand into the living room and sat down next to me on the chesterfield. “How was your day, Opi?” she asked (Opi being a variation of Opa or Grandfather).

“It is a happy talent to know how to play.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, American essayist, lecturer and poet

I had gotten home late from work and was greeted at the door by my eight-year-old granddaughter, Alexis. It had been an especially trying day and I was exhausted and frustrated. She led me by the hand into the living room and sat down next to me on the chesterfield.

“How was your day, Opi?” she asked (Opi being a variation of Opa or Grandfather).

As best I could, I described in general terms how frustrated and tired I felt.

Alexis asked me, “Did you try really hard today, Opi?”

“Yes,” I replied. “I tried really hard.”

“And did you do you very best?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Well then,” she said, “you can go outside now and play.”

I find it wonderful how easily children can see and express fundamental truths. There is plenty of evidence to support the role of play on early childhood learning and development. Research has shown strong associations between play and language, cognitive, physical and social development. Play is a necessary component of childhood. We may often conceive of play as something children do, but research has shown that play is just as vital in adulthood.

Immersed in the responsibilities of life with more to accomplish and less time to do it, we often forget to play, perhaps believing that play is no longer appropriate or even frivolous. Research suggests that play becomes even more important as we get older and the benefits are innumerable. Studies have shown that play eases tension and promotes creativity. A study by Northwestern University found that play activated the pleasure centres in the brain resulting in improved scores in a series of controlled puzzle-solving exercises. The conclusion: play appears to “facilitate neuronal connections helpful for greater mental flexibility and creativity.”

Researchers declared that an increase in cognitive resources lessens tension and worry and appears to “help us think of different ways to engage with a challenging situation.”

One of the reasons play is so beneficial is that it brings us into the now. It submerges us wholly in the moment. When we engage in play we enter a natural trance state. This state has been referred to as “Flow,” a term coined by Hungarian born author and the distinguished professor of psychology, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. In his best seller, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csíkszentmihályi explains that “Flow occurs when we are completely immersed in an activity. It’s the state of being 100 per cent in the present moment and it is a state of great pleasure.”

Whatever it is we’re doing, we tend to be more focused when we’re in the moment. Play makes us present – frees us from anger, regret and disappointment. I remember someone asking me once, “What’s wrong with this moment?” When I thought about the moment I was experiencing and nothing more, I could find nothing wrong with it. Life is comprised of moments and when we interject play into our day, we’re choosing to live our life to the fullest.

And there’s another benefit still. Many of us live in a perpetual state of stress, which saps our energy and suppresses our natural ability to heal and fend off disease. Play has been shown to decrease stress and inflammation in the body, improve vascular health and boost the immune system. A lessening of stress has wide-ranging benefits, and play is the most effective way to lessen and manage stress. We rebound faster, we think more clearly and we’re healthier.

Play has the remarkable ability to connect us with our fellow human beings. I recall reading an article once that told of a letter home written by a soldier in the trenches during the First World War. The letter described the remarkable events of a Christmas Day truce. “The English brought out a soccer ball from the trenches and pretty soon a lively game ensured. How marvellously wonderful yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”

The ability to play — to inhabit this moment fully and completely — can be the ultimate act of love and forgiveness. It can allow us to transcend both our beliefs and perceptions.

Perhaps the better our self-esteem, the more willing we become to engage in play. I know that I am a more focused and productive individual when I allow time for play. Over the years, as my focus on building self-esteem increased, so did my desire to engage in play.

As for my granddaughter, with some coaxing, she convinced me to go outside where we played a rousing game of hide and seek. It was fun and I soon forgot about my stressful day.

“Men do not quit playing because they grow old,” wrote American jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. “They grow old because they stop playing.”

I have discovered that some of the wisest and most aware people I’ve met are also the ones who genuinely cherish play. Perhaps as we laugh and play, as we experience true joy, we are reminded of our fundamental need for happiness, love and connectedness.

Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His new book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca

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