cartoon of adults playing: woman painting and man playing guitar
Adults, Young Adults

Getting Serious about Play for Adults

Even though I’ve lived in the US for over 20 years, I still have must-see British TV shows. The soap opera Coronation Street has been on UK TV screens for over 60 years. It is seen as a reflection of English culture and family life. In a recent episode, a young girl played happily with her toys until her mom joined in and took over the imaginary story. It made me wonder…

When as adults did we forget how to play?

Black and white photo of three generations of boys playing

We mostly associate play with children. It’s an integral part of their cognitive and social development. However, young adults tend to stop playing when they start working. It’s almost as if our working lives are so serious and all-consuming that we no longer have time to play.

In fact, compared to other countries in the world, Americans work many more hours per week. A recent study found US workers put in the equivalent of two extra weeks of work a year compared to other industrialized nations. Yet working harder doesn’t mean we are working smarter.

Regaining our ability to play make us more productive and improve our psychological health and wellbeing.

If you ask an adult what the opposite of play is, many will answer ‘work.’ However, if you ask a therapist, they’d probably answer ‘reality.’ Play allows us to escape our everyday routines and distract ourselves from our current reality. Many adults actually are “working” when they think they are playing. Often when adults play, it’s purposeful, rule-bound, and competitive. We play golf, tennis, chess or board games. When children play, it’s imaginative.The rules are made up as the play story develops.

Here are a few ideas to help you find your way back to play.

Know your play type.

One of the first ways an adult can explore play is by identifying what psychologists have called a ‘play type.’ There are four play types. If you prefer playing with others, for example, pick-up basketball, soccer, or Karaoke, you enjoy social play. Lighthearted play means you don’t take life too seriously and like to find humor and spontaneity in different situations. Intellectual play focuses on ideas and problem-solving, and whimsical players enjoy doing different or unusual things. For example, costume parties and dress-up. Knowing your play type can help you identify what kinds of activities you enjoy and which you’d rather avoid. 

Play when you need to refill your positive emotion tank.

Marsha Linehan, the founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, recognizes the value of play in helping distract people from difficult situations and emotions. For example, watching children play, playing cards, or video games can put some much-needed space between ourselves and our negative thoughts and feelings. She also advocates playing to get back to experiencing pleasant emotions. Need a quick idea to inject play into your day? Ditch the GPS on your phone and try to find your way to your destination by following signs or asking people for directions. As helpful as Google and Apple Maps are, they have taken the mystery, connectivity, and spontaneity out of travel. 

Play are when you feel overwhelmed, stressed or anxious.

adult man in a pile of legos

You can change potentially frustrating tasks into playful experiences. Following instructions, particularly if they are poorly written (IKEA furniture perhaps), can be transformed from an incomprehensible, argument waiting to happen situation to a fun, shared experience where the outcome is less important than solving the problem of which pieces might fit together.

Play isn’t just for kids. It’s a critical part of adults’ psychological and emotional wellbeing at home and work. As you’re looking at your schedule for next week. Make sure you prioritize time for play!

About the Author

Anna Rowley, consultant for improved mental health in the workplace

Dr. Anna Rowley, MPhil, PhD. is a professional counseling intern with Montgomery County Counseling Center. Her expertise in business and psychology started well before her time at MCCC.  Anna studied for a Master of Philosophy degree in group work before completing a Ph.D. at the University of London. She worked for 14 years in the department of psychological medicine at a children’s hospital in London. Most recently, through her consulting practice, Anna has helped executives, founders, and entrepreneurs cope with stress and burnout, imposter syndrome, lack of confidence, and, most importantly, how to activate their everyday resilience.

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