Unstructured play time is widely accepted to have benefits for children’s growth and development. However, when it comes to play time for adults, we often discount it as frivolous, immature, or simply a waste of time – with the possible exception of organized sports. But organized sports are very different than spontaneous, unstructured play, and due to their goal-oriented nature, they can often rob us of many of the real benefits of play. Dr. Stuart Brown, who founded the National Institute of Play, states that “play is something done for its own sake” which is pleasurable and “takes you out of time.” It is not something that’s done with an end-goal in mind. According to the National Institute of Play, when our lives are deficient of play, it constitutes a genuine public health risk and can contribute to the prevalence of conditions like depression, stress-related diseases, interpersonal violence, and addiction. Play is a source of vitality in our lives that will benefit us far beyond our childhood years if only we will let it.
There are many benefits of incorporating play into our lives as adults. The old adage “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” actually holds true for adults in many ways, and when we start to lose the playfulness and joy in our lives, our company can become less appealing to others, and our relationships, creativity and motivation can suffer. But when we find ways to incorporate play into our lives as adults, the benefits can be enormous, including reduced stress and increased creativity, energy and productivity.
How Nature Magnifies the Benefits of Play
Now, play can take place anywhere both indoors and out. But when we combine play with time in nature, the benefits are multiplied. In the same way that Green Exercise (which is exercise pursued in a natural environment) has added benefits over simply running indoors on the treadmill, green play can have added benefits as well. In their 2014 book Your Brain on Nature, Selhub and Logan present research showing that time spent in nature can reduce stress and depression, increase creativity, and boost our immune markers in ways that similar activities done indoors cannot. It can also help us develop closer relationships with those around us. So, I invite you to go out in nature and take an adult version of recess!
You may be thinking, “That’s great, but if I start playing around in public I’m going to look like a fool.” If you feel embarrassed about playing where other people might see you, consider going to a place that’s far enough off the beaten path that you will feel comfortable and still be safe, or bring your kids or dog with you – they will give you social license to make a fool of yourself in public. There is something invigorating about letting go of social norms and just playing spontaneously. Here are some suggestions to get you started:
Climb a tree
This was part of an assignment in my graduate wilderness therapy program. I thought it was silly at first; after all, I was training to be a professional therapist and not a kindergartener. But as soon as I tried it I was flooded with memories of climbing trees as a child, getting pine pitch in my hair, and hiding above everyone else’s heads during games of hide-and-go-seek. So I kept at it. Once a week for a whole semester I visited my tree in a public park, took off my shoes and climbed up into her branches to sit for at least twenty minutes. The sense of connection I felt with this tree at the end of my semester was wonderful. I still go back to visit her once in a while, climb up in her branches, and enjoy my secret view of the park.
This is my chocolate lab’s favorite pastime. She doesn’t care if it’s mud, snow, or just plain old grass; she LOVES to roll around on the ground. Every time she does it, everyone watching bursts out laughing and I often wonder what the heck she gets out of it. So, one day I tried it, and I think she’s really onto something. Do you remember running to the top of a hill as a child just so you could lie in the grass and roll back down again, giggling as you struggled to stand up at the bottom, swaying from dizziness? Well I’ll tell you, it’s just as much fun as an adult, especially when shared with friends, dogs, or small children.
Make a snow angel or have a snowball fight
There is nothing quite like getting all bundled up in the winter to go outside to jump in the snow. Making snow angels, having a snowball fight, or just rolling around in the powder like my dog are all great ways to play in the winter. For a lower time-commitment or for those of you who don’t like bundling up quite so much, next time it’s snowing outside, look up at the sky and try to catch a snowflake on your tongue. You might be surprised how playful this simple act can be.
I still remember the fort in the lilac bushes at my childhood friend’s house. We would go around her yard and dig up patches of moss to plant in our fort as carpeting (I’m still not sure her mother ever forgave me!). Having a secret nature place we could escape to was simply magical. As an adult, I’ve had the opportunity twice recently to do something similar. As part of my graduate wilderness therapy training, we spent an outdoor section practicing survival skills, and part of that was building a shelter – which is just a grownup word for a fort. I slept in the shelter with two of my friends that night, giggling and laughing about the dirt falling on our faces, and there was a similar sense of magic sleeping in our fort that I remember from being a child. I felt closer to nature than I ever do sleeping in a tent. The other opportunity was with a local school’s outdoor program teaching kids winter survival skills. Several parents and adults, including myself, helped the kids dig snow caves where they would spend the night that weekend. I can’t remember the last time I saw adults so excited about shoveling! And let me tell you, crawling inside a snow cave you just spent hours digging is a pretty wonderful feeling.
This is your invitation to get a little dirty. If you think this is something little kids do just to frustrate their parents, think again! Don’t believe me? Just look around at the recent popularity of all the obstacle course-style races like Tough Mudder and Rugged Maniac. Their growing popularity goes to show that some things never get old, no matter how many candles crowd our birthday cake. The simple joy of getting dirty, without worrying whether we will ruin our clothes, is a great way to play and connect with nature. So go find a pair of old shoes and some clothes you’re ready to donate or throw out, and jump in a mud puddle. Go barefoot, if you trust the puddles! There’s something gratifying about the slosh and splash of muddy water, and something magical about getting messy.