When was the last time someone told you to go outside and play?
If you’re as old as I am, the phrase evokes images of your harried mother trying to vacuum with you under her feet while she’s simultaneously simmering dinner on the stove.
Although my mother may have been just trying to get me out of her hair, her advice was good. Go play. And in those days, neighborhood kids gathered on someone’s front lawn in summer and played hide and seek until the sun went down.
Not to digress, but this was the era before rigorous kindergarten curriculum in preparation for col- lege entrance exams and bi-weekly appointments with pitching coach- es. Unstructured playtime has been on the decline for decades, and is correlated with a rise in anxiety and depression in children.
Kids need creative free time, espe- cially outdoor playtime, unencum- bered by constant adult supervision.
During the unstructured playtime of imagining, story-telling and pre- tending, children figure out how to negotiate challenges in life. They face imaginary fears, assert their bravery and try on different roles.
Play is essential for normal emo- tional and social development and for a life of joy, purpose and satisfaction. But these benefits don’t end with childhood.
If kids have been on a playtime diet, adults are in starvation mode. There is an inverse relationship
between growing up and playing. The older we get, the less we play.
A few months back, while taking my dog for a walk in the park, I decided to hop on a swing. There I was, pumping my legs, wind in my face. It was liberating to be floating through air (until my dog leaped up onto me and nearly strangled herself with her leash). But I wonder whether I would have sat on that swing had there been people around. Probably not.
Maybe that’s one reason we stop playing. We feel embarrassed or fear that others will roll their eyes at us.
That’s regrettable. Dr. Bowen White, physician and founding member of the National Institute for Play, says that play matters, no matter how old we are. He explains, “We all come into the world knowing how to play. As adults, we shouldn’t feel like we have to grow out of it.”
Playing can include trying new experiences like tasting sushi for the first time or going up in a hot air balloon. It involves a willingness to be vulnerable or even silly. Dr. White encourages us to think of play as more of a mental approach to activities rather than the specific activities themselves. Adopting a playful mindset about any endeavor will promote fun regardless of what it is.
Play makes us happy. Whether its stamp collecting, gardening, trying a new recipe, or reading a good book, we are transported to another world and lose track of time. It lightens the heart, and is one of the best stress relief tools we have.
Laughter enriches our relation- ships. Getting together with friends to cook a meal or having a family game night reminds us how import- ant our loved ones are. Play is essen- tial for the mind and body.
So the next time someone tells you to go jump in a lake, do it! Like George Bernard Shaw says, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
Mary Petersen is a retired COC En