Have you noticed that people respond very negatively to the four-letter word, p-l-a-y? For some reason we view play as something too childish, even for children. We do everything we can – exercise, work, classes – to contain play and reduce the amount of time we “waste” having fun.
Nature has a very different view.
People have used play to survive starvation, prison, and illness. Anthropologists tell us that the average person living in low-tech “primitive” cultures spends about 20 hours a week “working” to provide themselves with food, clothing, and shelter. That leaves a lot of time left-over to play and sleep. Most human beings lived like that until a few thousand years ago. Yet, still we scoff that p-l-a-y could powerfully heal our everyday stress.
P-l-a-y keeps our bodies flexible, our minds alert, and our spirits ready for change.
Play relieves stress and the inflammation that accompanies it. Medical science tells us that reducing chronic inflammation allows the body to heal. Enjoying games with other people releases oxytocin and boosts our immune responses. Playing, especially outdoors, gives us an appetite and revs up our metabolism so we can better digest our food. We work up a thirst and drink water that helps us eliminate toxins.
Play clears the mind. A 21 year study of healthy elderly showed that participants who danced or played board games three times a week stayed sharp much longer than those who did solitary activities like reading and crossword puzzles. Participants who exercised by climbing stairs and bicycling seemed more likely to get dementia. Children who have recess do better in school. Why?
Play lifts the spirit. It keeps our bodies flexible, our minds alert, and our spirits ready for change. Imagination fuels play. Whatever we dream up expands our future possibilities. Creative play draws on inner resources. Like a drink of water, play helps us eliminate both physical andpsychic toxins. When we play with others we open our hearts in friendship so stress and loneliness melt away. Play feeds our souls.
Play flourishes with structure. We need to set aside time and space for play every day of our lives. Traditional medicine practitioners understood this, thousands of years ago. They used simple life-style changes to keep the body, mind and spirit in balance so people could stay well and heal from disease. Many of us playfully explore Yoga, Tai Chi, or Qigong when we first learn about them. Then we discover that we need to practice, practice, practice to get the best benefits – just like a child who bounces a ball against a wall over and over and over until they learn to catch it every time, at every different angle and speed. Regular practice prunes away clumsiness, and polishes awkward movements into grace and beauty.
Make some time to play every day. It keeps you young!
 See accounts of: Ernest Shackleton’s second trip to the South Pole on the ship Endurance; Patch Adams and Norm Cousins’ healing use of laughter; and George Eisen’s book Children and Play in the Holocaust.
 Verghese, J., Lipton, R.H., Katz, M.J., Hall, C.B., Derby, C.A, Kuslansky, G., Ambrose, A.F., Sliwinski, M., Buschke, H. (2003). Leisure activities and the risk of dementia in the elderly. N Eng J Med. 348:2508-2516. June 19, 2003.