The Healing Power Of Play (And How To Do It—In Case You’ve Forgotten)
I can’t remember when I last felt so weightless.
The rollercoaster soared through the air, high above the city. We made a drop, then an upside-down loop that had our cart full of adults whooping like children. Between gasps and laugher, I bared my teeth for the world, grinning up at the night sky. I could feel joy rushing through me, the forgotten feeling of play reappearing after two decades of collecting dust alongside toys in my parents’ attic.
When the coaster stopped, I noticed my cheeks were wet—was I crying? Water droplets ran down my face like rain on a foggy window. Except I could see so clearly now. I wanted to bottle up the moment, to remain in that headspace for just a bit longer. It was a space where bills and deadlines and news didn’t own my attention. Just one more minute, one more ride.
I have this hunch that things could be different—that I could be different—if only I remembered the little girl who used to frolic in the backyard. Oh, how she loved to play. On so many afternoons, you could find her pumping her feet and launching her body so high from the swing, landing with fits of joy on the soft grass. Where did she go?
I think many of us lose our child selves, somewhere between learning long-division and reading Homer. We’re told that school and “preparing ourselves for the future” takes precedent; even sports and art become increasingly competitive and serious. The moments we carve out for play become smaller and smaller until all that’s left is 20-minute slivers for recess.
Then we grow up, leaving our playful dispositions behind in exchange for suits and laptops, for serious matters that purse our lips and furrow our brows. We “play” adult, which simply means we trade fun for seriousness. Any sort of goofing off becomes relegated for PTO. “We’ll play on vacation,” we promise ourselves, “because we’ve earned it.”
But as humans, we’re wired to play, and not only for short spurts of time. According to Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, author of “Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less,” play is a part of human evolution.
“We know that goats play and dogs play and monkeys play and humans play—you don’t have to be taught it, and there must be an evolutionary reason for that,” she explains to the Pacific Standard. “By abandoning play, we’re abandoning an important part of ourselves.”
Research supports this theory, too. Play increases satisfaction and productivity in the workplace, and it can help with bonding in our personal relationships. Most importantly, it positively affects our minds and bodies. Not only does play help us handle stress, but it can also heal us from exhaustion and burnout.
And it’s this healing that I’m most interested in when I think about reclaiming play for myself—especially now, as life seems to require more seriousness than ever. I can’t be the only one who feels exhausted by always having to choose between work and play, between silliness and serious matters. There’s an increased desire I’ve noticed—a longing if you will—to find joy and laughter in my life again.
Because if you think about it, seriousness only begets seriousness, and when we’re exhausted or running low on joy, it’s not great for anyone. Like Dr. Stuart Brown, the head of the National Institute for Play and a leading voice on this matter told NPR, play deprivation makes “life much more laborious.”
We’re all carrying around too much right now, with few adequate breaks for rest or fun. Play can restore us though, and it can even help us to become more balanced and healthy humans that can better care for the world and others.
But first, we have to grant ourselves permission to play, to not be so serious, and to take regular breaks to engage in inconsequential activities. For me, I also start by asking myself what I loved to do as a kid and then doing those things as an adult.
My dad had a motorcycle when we were growing up, and, on summer nights, he’d place us between him and the handlebars and race around the nearby forest. Now, I notice whenever I’m on a moped (or even a bicycle), I immediately get that giddy feeling of racing through the trees. What brought you joy and laughter as a child, and can you recreate those moments now?
I also believe in trying new (and smaller) playful activities; play isn’t limited to adrenaline-fueled experiences, like riding rollercoasters or motorcycles. I’ve always wanted to take an art or pottery class and to go dancing with my partner.
And while play is an excellent tool to practice embodiment—go jump on a trampoline, cannonball into a swimming pool, or have an adult snowball fight—it’s not limited to physical activities, either. Play is a mindset, it’s a posture and an approach that we take towards our time. Video games, puzzles, or simply making up stories can all be ways to experience play and bring our inner child to the surface again.
Even chores can become playful activities—especially if you’re a parent. Doing dishes? Put on a funky playlist so you can dance around while drying the plates. Running errands with kids? Play car karaoke. Perhaps you can play with your children. If you regularly schedule play dates with other parents, have an “adult play date” while all your kids play together.
Finally, I know that play is a luxury for many people, and it’s not always possible to prioritize when we’re simply trying to survive challenging seasons in life. If that’s you, I see you and recognize how hard the journey is. My hope is that, at some point, you, too, would be able to play again.
Perhaps it’s the missing puzzle piece for all of us, the one that can help us heal. I know it was that way for me. And if I have to spend more time riding rollercoasters to experience that healing—metaphorically or otherwise—strap me in.
Kayti Christian (she/her) is a Senior Editor at The Good Trade. She has a Master’s in Nonfiction Writing from the University of London and is the creator of Feelings Not Aside, a newsletter for enneagram 4s and other sensitive-identifying people. Outside of writing, she loves hiking, reading memoir, and the Oxford comma.