When was the last time you played–really played and had fun? Maybe it was recent; maybe you can’t remember the last time. Either way, let’s talk about why this therapist is coming to realize just how important play can be.

A couple of years ago, I decided to try winter hiking. I did a little research, collected some winter hiking gear, and ventured out into the snow. On one hike, I found myself alone at the trailhead. The freshly fallen blanket of powder covering the trail ahead of me was untouched, completely free of any human footprints. I had the trail to myself. I hiked up, admiring the almost surreal landscape of pristine snowdrifts, frozen streams, and tree branches adorned with glistening icicles.

After hiking up for a while, the snow became too deep for me to keep moving forward, since I only had boots, and no snow shoes. I turned around and headed back down the mountain, still with the trail completely to myself. The snow was so fresh, it felt like I was floating down the mountain, with puffs of powder flying up around my feet with each step. Spontaneously, I got the urge to run downhill. So I did! I ran, kicking up snow, feeling the spray of powder on my cheeks as I went. I found myself grinning, stretching my arms out to my sides as I ran, involuntarily laughing as I skidded and slipped along, my heart pounding and my lungs filling with cold mountain air. It was pure fun. With the trail to myself, I felt totally free to do what felt good, which apparently was to run down the mountain laughing like a little kid. 

Call it corny, but I felt SO ALIVE! By the time I neared the trailhead, a few other hikers were starting up the mountain. I slowed to a walk, but couldn’t stop myself from grinning ear to ear. I am not a naturally peppy person (like, really not), so it surprised me a bit to find myself so giddy, so energized, and so spontaneous. That, my friends, is the power of play.

My experience of cavorting down the mountain hasn’t turned into a typical occurrence, but it did provide me with an “aha” moment about the importance of adding play into my life. I’m finding that play can be a valuable element of maintaining mental wellness.

Kids, naturally, are the experts when it comes to playing and having fun. Research on play indicates a myriad of benefits for kids, including stronger development of social-emotional and problem-solving skills, more mental flexibility, and increased resilience against the effects of stress. Play has also been shown to help kids manage anxiety and worry, reduce the likelihood of experiencing depression, and foster creativity. Kids don’t care about the research, of course; they play because it’s fun, and because it’s natural.

Figuring out how to play as a grown-up has its fair share of challenges, but I’d argue that play is just as needed for adults as it is for children. Especially as we manage mental health challenges, the impact of world events, or the ever-present stresses of daily life, we could all use some of the benefits of play. When it comes to emotional wellness, play should be just as much a priority as any other form of basic self-care. Here are a few ideas to help you add more play into your grown-up life:

  • Move your body in fun ways. Dance while you clean up your kitchen. Skip instead of walking to the mailbox. Lay on the carpet and stretch in whatever way feels good.
  • Go outside and do what a kid would do. Sit on the ground and make a log cabin out of sticks. Roll down a grassy hill. Jump in a puddle, for crying out loud!
  • Play together with someone–your partner, a roommate, a friend, a niece or nephew. Make up a game together. Learn a Tik-Tok dance. Watch a movie with the sound muted and make up your own dialogue.
  • Ask your body, “What fun do you want to have?” Maybe your body wants to jump and move around. Maybe it wants to sing. Maybe it wants to flirt with your partner. Maybe it wants a spontaneous, delicious bite to eat.

Play can be like a rocket booster in times when we feel like we’re dragging ourselves through life. Those moments of true fun can feel elusive, but I believe there’s power in intentionally adding play to our lives. I hope you’ll find your “Running Down a Snowy Mountain” moments as you explore the possibilities of play!


References: The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children. Pediatrics September 2018