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Unleash Your Inner Child: The Surprising Brain Benefits of Adult Play 🧠
Discover how engaging in playful activities can improve your mental and physical well-being (10min Read)
The Neuroscience of Play
The Mental, Emotional & Physical Benefits of Play
What’s Your Play Personality?
Types of Play
Play Ideas for Adults
Play is often associated with childhood and is seen as something that should be left behind as we grow up and become responsible adults.
However, research has shown that play is not only beneficial for children but for adults too.
Today, we will explore the brain benefits of play for adults, play personalities, and even give some examples of things you could do right now.
I hope by the end you believe as firmly as I do that it’s important to continue to engage in playful activities throughout our lives, not just as kids!
The Neuroscience of Play
As always, let’s start with Neuroscience!
Animal play research shows that the motivation to play is hardwired below the cortex, in the survival centers of the brain.
They figured this out by removing the outer layer of rats’ brains, and to their surprise, the rats still engaged in play behaviors.
This suggests that play is a deeply rooted neural mechanism inside our brain, in fact, activity in the survival centers of the brain are active when at play.
Neuroscientists have shown that human brains are similar to the structure of the rats in the study above and that our play begins from the same survival areas of the brain.
Play has been shown to help wire our neocortex together, create the neural pathways that determine our emotional stability & EQ, and determines how easily we will be able to learn in the future!
It has also been shown that children who are deprived of play, struggle to relate to others and to learn from their life experiences.
The Adult Brain & Play
These benefits aren’t just for kids! The brain is a complex organ that requires stimulation and engagement to function at its best, and play provides just that, even for adults.
Some of the most important parts of our brain that are stimulated during play are the prefrontal cortex (PFC), Hippocampus, Striatum, Amygdala, & Anterior cingulate cortex.
The PFC is responsible for executive functions such as decision-making, problem-solving, and regulation of emotions.
Engaging in play activities stimulates this area, which can result in improved cognitive abilities and better emotional regulation.
Another important aspect of play is its effect on the limbic system.
This system is responsible for regulating emotions and mood, and play has been shown to release endorphins and other feel-good chemicals in the brain, leading to an overall improvement in mood and stress reduction.
The striatum is involved in reward processing and reinforcement learning, and play stimulates this region to help improve motivation and drive.
And finally, the anterior cingulate cortex is important for regulating attention and focus, and play helps stimulate this region and improve attention.
These brain regions can shift & change throughout our lives through the process of neuroplasticity.
This is the mechanism play uses to improve these brain regions.
For those who don’t remember, this refers to the ability of the brain to change and adapt over time.
Engaging in play activities can help to create new neural pathways in these regions, enhance existing ones, and improve overall brain function.
Numerous studies have shown that adults who engaged in playful activities reported feeling happier and more content with their lives.
Best of all, these benefits were not limited to just the time spent playing, but also extended to the rest of the day!
The Mental, Emotional, & Physical Health Benefits of Play
So, play has a ton of benefits for the brain, but what’s that mean for you day to day?
Reduces Stress & Anxiety
When we engage in play, we release endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals, which can reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.
Play can also provide a distraction from the worries and responsibilities of daily life, allowing us to relax and recharge.
Increases Creativity & Problem-Solving Skills
When we engage in play, we let our imaginations run wild, which can lead to new and innovative ideas.
Additionally, play often involves problem-solving, such as figuring out how to win a board game or solve a puzzle, which can help to improve these skills in other areas of our lives.
Improves Memory & Cognitive Function
Engaging in activities like crossword puzzles or playing strategy games can help to stimulate our brains and keep our minds sharp.
Additionally, play can also improve our ability to concentrate and focus, as we are forced to engage with the task at hand and tune out distractions.
Promotes Emotional Well-being
Play can also help to improve our mood, boost our self-esteem, and provide a sense of accomplishment.
It also provides an opportunity to connect with others and form new relationships, which can be especially important for adults who may feel isolated or disconnected.
Boosts Productivity & Motivation
When we engage in play, we are taking a break from our daily routines and responsibilities, which can help to increase our motivation and drive when we return to our work.
As I mentioned above, play can help to boost our creativity and problem-solving skills, which can make us more effective/productive in our jobs.
Enhances Physical Health
Engaging in physical activities like sports, dance, or even just playing with our children or pets can help to improve our overall health and wellness.
Regular physical activity has been shown to reduce the risk of chronic conditions like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, as well as improve mental health.
How Do I “Play” as an Adult?
Ok, you get it, play is a powerful tool for improving a near-unlimited number of things in our mind, brain & body, but how do you do it?
I’m glad you asked, first of all, do you know your play personality?
Dr. Stuart Brown, a renowned play scientist outlines 8 play personalities, let’s review them briefly!
1. The Collector
This is someone who gets a thrill from collecting objects or experiences.
It could be coins, toy trains, antiques, wine, shoes, videos of race car crashes, or pieces of the crashed cars themselves.
An example of collecting experiences could be someone who travels the world to see solar eclipses, you can tell if they’re a collector by which part they derive the most joy from!
Do they have lots of pictures with dates, times, places, etc collected as evidence that they were there? That’s a Collector!
Collectors may enjoy collecting as a solitary activity, or it may be the focus of an intense social connection with others who share their passion.
2. The Competitor
Competitors access the euphoria and creativity of play by participating in a competitive game with specific rules.
Competitors aren’t playing just for the game; they are playing to win.
If games and keeping score are your things, this may be your primary play personality.
This is my top play personality without a doubt, in fact, as I’m writing this, I’m sore from playing basketball last night in a league I’m in, it was exhilarating!
This doesn’t have to be a sport though, and it doesn’t have to be on a team, playing a single-player video game would be something a competitor would like as well.
It also doesn’t mean that you’re doing the activity either, competitors also like watching games/competitions as fans oftentimes.
3. The Creator/Artist
For the creator/artist, joy is found in making things.
This could mean painting, printmaking, woodworking, pottery, sculpture, furniture making, knitting, sewing, gardening and so much more.
This is one of my dad’s top play styles, he’s an amazing woodworker!
Creators/artists may show their creations to the world or may never show anyone what they make.
The point is to make something, it could be something beautiful, functional, or goofy.
It could also mean making something work, like taking apart a pump, replacing broken parts, cleaning it, and putting back together a shiny, perfectly working mechanism.
4. The Director
Directors play by planning; they enjoy planning and executing scenes, parties, events, etc.
A lot of the time these types of people don’t even know they enjoy this so much, but they love the power to make things happen.
My mom would fall under this category without a doubt, she always has an event or fundraiser she’s prepping for!
They are organizers, they are the party planners, they set up excursions, etc.
They view people as players in a game they are directing and they see how all the parts & people interact with each other!
5. The Explorer
Exploration is how Explorer types get into a play state, and it helps them provoke their imagination.
Exploring can be physical, literally going to new places, or emotional, meaning they search for new feelings or a deepening of the familiar through music, movement, or even flirtation.
Exploration can also be mental, such as researching a new subject or seeking out new points of view.
I also have this play type, it’s not as strong as my competitor, but I love diving into research & learning new things constantly, which is in part why I write this blog!
6. The Joker
We all know these types of people, they are the ones who are always making you laugh.
They’re the practical joke players, and their favorite day of the year is April 1st.
In school, they were class clowns, and they love to make people laugh.
They could be literal comedians, but oftentimes they’re just silly and don’t take themselves too seriously.
7. The Kinesthetic
Kinesthetics are people who like to move their bodies; some even need to move in order to think.
This could be an athlete, but it can also be a dancer, a rock climber, or someone who enjoys walking to think!
Kinesthetics naturally want to push their bodies and feel the result.
They may play football, practice yoga, dance, or jump rope to access the joy and openness of play.
While they may play sports, it’s not to win necessarily, it’s to move their body, and engage in the movement, not the competition!
8. The Storyteller
Imagination is the key for Storytellers, this is what brings them joy!
They may be novelists, playwrights, cartoonists, or screenwriters, or they may find their greatest joy in reading the novels and watching the movies created by others.
They feel engaged in stories, and experience the thoughts and emotions of the characters in the story.
Performers of all sorts are storytellers, creating an imaginative world through acting, dance, lectures, or magic tricks.
Because imagination is the realm of the storyteller, they can bring play to almost any activity.
If a Storyteller is playing a game, they want it to be an exciting story, they’re not as focused on winning as the Competitor might be!
Which are you? Share this with a friend to see which they think they are!
The best way to understand what kinds of play you might enjoy is to rate yourself on these categories above and then put them in order, here’s mine:
This allows you to understand what types of play you might find the most enjoyable!
Think back to when you were a kid, what kinds of activities did you look forward to the most? What activities did you love?
Another way to think about it is to think of which ones you hate first. It feels counterintuitive, but generally, people know which of these they aren’t right away!
Once you figure out which play personality you are, you’ll need some things to do.
I’ve put together a couple of lists of ideas for you to comb through below, as you go through them, write down 2-3 that you want to try out!
Categories of Play
First, here are some big-picture categories to chew on:
Physical play: This type of play involves engaging in physical activity and can include sports, games, exercise, and outdoor activities.
Social play: This type of play involves social interaction and can include games, sports, or other activities that involve other people.
Pretend play: This type of play involves imaginative play and can include role-playing, dress-up, and make-believe.
Games: This type of play can include board games, card games, video games, and other games that have rules and objectives.
Creative play: This type of play involves engaging in creative activities such as art, music, dance, and theater.
Solitary play: This type of play involves engaging in activities alone, such as reading, writing, or engaging in solitary hobbies.
Play Ideas for Adults
Finally, here are some more specific ideas for you to choose from:
Outdoor sports such as hiking, golfing, or tennis
Board games, card games, and video games
Creative arts like painting, drawing, or sculpting
Live performance arts such as theater, music, or dance
Puzzle-solving, such as crosswords, jigsaw puzzles, or escape rooms
Adventure activities like rock climbing, bungee jumping, or skydiving
Participating in leisure activities such as gardening, cooking, or crafting
Group fitness classes such as yoga, dance, or team sports
Travel and exploration, both domestically and internationally
Outdoor recreational activities like camping, fishing, or hunting
Taking classes to learn new skills or hobbies
Reading, watching movies, or attending cultural events.
What did you pick? Email me back with your list of 2-3 things you’re gonna try out.
If you wanna play with a friend, share this post with them so they can join you.
It’s Not Just For Kids
I like to say adults are just kids wearing a costume, take off the costume every once in a while and PLAY some more!
Next time you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, take a break, engage in some play, and enjoy the many benefits it has to offer.
The benefits of play for adults are numerous and backed by science. It is a great way to improve brain function and overall well-being.
So, make time for play in your daily routine so you can see the positive effects it can have on your life as well, and until next time… Live Heroically 🧠
Scholz et al. (2009). "Training-induced changes in white-matter architecture." Nature Neuroscience, 12(11), 1370-1371.
O'Mara et al. (2011). "Spatial navigation and memory in middle-aged rats following maze learning." Journal of Neuroscience, 31(1), 28-35.
Koechlin et al. (1999). "The role of the anterior prefrontal cortex in human cognition." Nature, 399(6732), 148-151.
Panksepp et al. (2003). "The neuroscience of play: An evolutionary and comparative perspective." Trends in Neurosciences, 26(10), 463-468.
Culham et al. (2001). "Attention and performance in a video game." Nature, 413(6856), 895-896.
"The Impact of Play on Adult Well-Being: A Review of the Literature" (American Journal of Play, 2013)
"The Effect of Play on Adult Brain Function" (Frontiers in Psychology, 2014)
"Physical Play and Mental Health: A Review of the Literature" (Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 2016)
"The Benefits of Play for Adult Relationships" (International Journal of Play, 2017)
"The Role of Play in Adult Learning and Development" (Journal of Adult and Continuing Education, 2009)
"The Benefits of Play for Adults with Depression" (Journal of Affective Disorders, 2010)
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