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Growing up, everyone is taught to play. We’re sent outside for recess and given a ball, a Frisbee, or a jungle gym. We’re told to exercise, express ourselves, get into trouble (but not too much) and learn about the world around us. 

So, we go out, and we play. We play pretend, imagining ourselves to be princes and princesses, soldiers and super heroes, villains and monsters. All this play is done in the name of self-discovery:

  • Who are we?
  • What do we enjoy?
  • What makes us happy or sad? 

For many children, this stage of play is important to their development, creating a fictional flood of stories, characters, morals, moments, and messages will carry with us for the rest of our lives.

Much like the children’s fairy tale Peter Pan though, at a certain point as adults we are told that they are no longer allowed to play. Life gets serious, we have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and face the unhappy reality that is… reality. 

Go get a job, don’t expect any handouts, and you can sleep when you’re dead. Suddenly this outlet of play that we’ve cultivated and grown within us must be cut out like a tumor of creativity. We’re told this is done for our own betterment, for the inarguable benefit of putting childish things behind us.

The idea of no longer playing can be dangerous to the human experience though.

Psychiatrist and founder of the National Institute for Play, Dr. Stuart Brown wrote an entire book on the subject, titled Play.

“[Play] is all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing,” wrote Dr. Brown, likening play to oxygen. “Play is the purest expression of love.”

The mind is not one track. It needs diversity, challenge, and exploration. Adults can find this release in many places. For some it’s reading, for some it’s video games, others find a team sport or an activity like indoor rock climbing or bird watching. For some, it’s games that have long been associated with childhood, like dungeons and dragons or live action role playing, and learning to accept that even traditionally childhood versions of “play” can be as useful for adults as it is for kids.

How you play is not always important. But fitting in play definitely is. Many of us need to unlearn this idea that games and activities are or can be juvenile, and embrace the idea that our minds, emotions, and mental health benefit from letting loose, having fun, and engaging in activities that give us different experiences and ways of thinking.

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