Athletes call it the “Zone.” Professionals call it “Flow.” Children call it “Play.” Regardless of the term, each share the basic characteristic of complete self-less absorption and engagement in the moment.

Dr. Stuart Brown from the National Institute for Play defines play as something that “is apparently purposeful activity that has no actual purpose or meaning”. It “takes you out of time and the act itself is more important than the outcome.” As adults, we may resist the notion of engaging in an activity that appears purposeless, yet research shows that play unlocks the human potential in all stages of life for transforming our world. Changing the adult, changes the environment we call childhood and how we relate to the developmental needs of children. Here are two reasons to embrace play throughout life.

• Relationships

Adults who engage in a long-term relationship with play embody: a sense of humor, the enjoyment of novelty, the capacity to share a lighthearted sense of the world’s ironies, the enjoyment of mutual storytelling, and the capacity to openly share their imagination. These playful interactions, when nurtured, result in an atmosphere of authentic connection and fulfilling relationship. Add this nurturing and loving adult to a spontaneous encounter of play with a well-fed, well-rested and safe infant child, and the result will be a mutual radiate of contagious joy.

Neuroscience findings show that child development is model dependent. Ideally then, the focus of early childhood development is to maximize the model-environment each adult parent represents. Guiding, learning from and mentoring the future of humanity is a developmental process for adults. When approached in this way the relationship, with it’s learning, and personal development becomes reciprocal and genuinely playful.

In his book, “Magical Parent, Magical Child,” author Joseph Chilton Pearce encourages adults to rediscover the “playful” and “childlike” aspects of their own intelligence, as they guide, learn from and mentor children. This in turn awakens and develops new potential in adults. Integrating fresh creative energy and attention into adult-child relationships transforms the adult and the childhood experience. This playful reciprocal-dynamic oscillates back and forth between the adult and child relationship. An empathic society begins with how we connect with our children.

• Personal Health and Well-Being

Childlike play helps us to remember what it means to be fully alive. Play is naturally uniquely and intrinsically rewarding. Play’s positive effects include:

1. Relieve stress. Play releases endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins promote an overall sense of well-being and can temporarily relieve pain. Sharing laughter and fun can foster empathy, compassion, trust, and intimacy with others. Play doesn’t have to include a specific activity rather it is more about developing a playful state of mind.

2. Improve brain function. Playing cards, completing puzzles, or engaging in other fun activities that stimulate the brain and boost creativity can assist in preventing memory problems and improve brain function. Play can also stimulate your imagination, helping you adapt and solve problems. “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”- Plato

3. Play improves social-emotional skills. Play is a powerful catalyst for positive socialization. Through play, children learn how to “play nicely” with others as well as how to work together, follow mutually agreed upon rules, and socialize in groups. As adults, you can continue to refine these skills through play and playful communication as well as to break down barriers and improve your relationships with others.

4. Play can heal emotional wounds. When adults play together, you are engaging in the same patterns of behavior that positively shape the brains of children. These same playful behaviors that predict emotional health in children can also enhance positive changes in adults. If an emotionally-insecure individual plays with a secure partner, it can help replace negative beliefs and behaviors with positive assumptions and actions.

5. Resolving conflict in relationships with humor and play. Play and laughter perform an essential role in building strong, healthy relationships by bringing people closer together, and creating a positive bond. Play can keep your connections exciting and vibrant while also deepening intimacy. It can also help you overcome differences and the tiny agitations that may build up over time.

“All art is a form of play.”- Joseph Chilton Pearce

Sandy Block-Hansen, MS. St. Francis Healthcare Campus Family Footprints Coordinator. A Catholic Health Initiative Mission and Ministry program created to support, inform, and offer resources to parents in the role of parenting. She can be reached at sandrablock-hansen@catholichealth.net or 218-643-0475

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