“We don’t stop playing because we get old. We get old because we stop playing.”

George Bernard Shaw had it right. Somewhere along the line, we stop playing. Maybe it’s the pressure of the mortgage. Maybe it’s the slippery rungs of the career ladder, the crises in the world, or the expanding waistline. Whatever it is, somewhere after we exit childhood and enter adulthood, we stop playing. We might even look down on those rare individuals who keep play in their lives, calling them childish or exhorting them to “grow up.”

Growing up is happening way too quickly these days, and play is disappearing.

With the increase in screen time and ubiquity of videogames and smart phones, free play for kids is becoming rarer. New research from a two-year study by RMIT University researchers in Melbourne, Australia found that free play is not only important but also does not require expensive equipment or gear. Dr. Brendon Hyndman from the School of Medical Sciences found that adult-designed toys, games, and playgrounds just didn’t serve the needs of children.

Dr Hyndman notes:

“Conventional playgrounds are designed by adults — they don’t actually take into consideration how the children want to play. At a time when childhood obesity is growing and playgrounds are shrinking, we need a creative approach to stimulate physical activity among schoolchildren.”

The study compared how children used a newly-built school with its more traditional playground featuring monkey bars and slides to how children used household items like buckets, crates, hay bales, and pool noodles. They found that children used the simple objects more intensely and more vigorously. Researchers also found that the children tended to have more steps in their play, and their play tended to be more creative and involve a story.

The health benefits of playing with these simple household objects were even more pronounced. Adding these inexpensive play items cut sedentary behavior in half. Instead of just sitting or standing around, children were twice as likely to move and engage in play.

But the health benefits of playing don’t end there. Here are some of the other ways that play makes healthy children and adults.

Play relieves stress

When we play, our brain releases endorphins, the “feel good” chemical that can produce a sense of lightness and euphoria.

Play makes you smarter

Solving problems like figuring out a corn maze or working through a mystery game helps stimulate the brain and ward off memory problems.

Play makes you more creative

Kids often learn better when they are playing, and the same is true for adults. Tossing a ball to learn parts of speech or multiplication facts engages all parts of the body and makes your brain connect to both sides at once, which has been proven to promote creativity.

Play keeps you young

Play like no one is watching. Moving your body keeps you young and energetic. Exercise and play actually increases energy, even when you are exhausted.

Incorporating play into your day for you and your kids is as easy as P-L-A-N!


Make play a regular part of your day. This does not mean signing up for an extracurricular activity or taking a class. This means that one part of each day is allotted to play. Instead of rushing right into dinner after work and school, take 30 to 60 minutes and:

  • Ride bikes
  • Have a dance party
  • Run through the sprinkler
  • Walk the dog
  • Catch butterflies
  • Have a hula-hooping contest
  • Create a world and solve a mystery
  • Go on a sensory hike (find things you have never seen, smelled, heard, felt, or tasted)
  • Anything else that gets you off the couch, away from the screen, and into the world

Let your kids take the lead, and let go of control

Kids are over-scheduled and over-busy, and so are adults. Let your kids have time for free play, and let them decide what is going to happen. Take some time at the beginning of each week to talk about the things they might like to do so you can plan ahead if any of the play needs materials. Every day, go as fast or as slow as your kids want to go. Let go, and let them be in control. Think of it as the one time of the day where all of the decisions are made for you, and enjoy it!

Allow your kids to do what they enjoy, with modifications

New research shows that the brain does get more creative when playing video games, but video games do not promote movement. But what if you have a video game junkie? Set some limits, then help them move while they play. Provide exercise balls to sit on instead of lounge chairs or couches, and play full-body games like tennis or baseball instead of arcade games that just involve a thumb. Play with them, get into what they are into, and the health benefits of play will extend into your relationship with your kid.

Never fall into the busy trap

As Tim Krieder put it in his wildly popular essay for The New York Times:

“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

But this frantic busyness is causing a rise in anxiety in parents and ADHD in kids. People in the U.S. are unable to relax. Even vacations are filled with frantic fun, an overscheduling of activity after activity that starts at sun-up and continues well after sun-down. Shutting down some of the busyness and taking the time to enjoy free play with your kids helps you to re-set and recharge. You don’t have to respond to every text and email immediately, and Facebook can wait. Stress relief is one of the health benefits of playing, but you have to decide that you are not too busy and make time.

Do you incorporate unstructured play into your family’s life? How?

Image by National Assembly for Wales via Flickr


Weekly updates on conditions, treatments, and news about everything happening inside pain medicine.

You have Successfully Subscribed!