It was 6 PM on a Sunday. My older son came in and asked “want to go for a bike ride?’
I already had a full day. A long run had made me tired. I just sat down to chill out. He already had his helmet on.
My initial response that came to me was “Aaah, I just sat down and was going to rest.” but I didn’t say it out loud.
My second response was better and I said “Get the bikes ready and I will be ready in five minutes.”
“Let’s do a fun run through the hills and pop out at the athletic complex.”
We jumped on our bikes and got to the trail by our house. We rode together, past each other, hit some shoulder jumps, and made it to the athletic complex. We hit all the workout stations together at the park where I took him as a child (he’s now 16). We would play here on the jungle gym, play hide and seek when he was a toddler. Football, soccer, and baseball came along as he got older. Now, mountain biking is his preferred activity. On the way home, we found a new trail we had never seen before. The sun was setting as we made it home. I saw my son as a strong and independent young man, not a child any more. It was beautiful.
If I had said “no”, I would have missed out on this beautiful experience. I only have two more years with my son at home. There are limited number of times he is going to ask me to play like that. I need to say “yes” each time unless there is some compelling reason not to. I let work priorities override my personal priorities sometimes and missed out on significant experiences with my family. This was a decent trade for a while and don’t regret it, I have just re-prioritized a bit and it feels right. Even when my kids don’t want to hang out with me, I will be ready!
Benefits of play
Play is crucial for a child to learn from interaction with the environment. During the early days of neurodevelopment, new connections are made from play and underutilized pathways are pruned. This process of neuroplasticity forms new connections based on new information. Playful social experiences as a juvenile help us develop behavioral strategies to deal with new situations. Many mammals play. It is an important part of brain development that has multiple benefits:
- Play develops prosocial behavior – Play is critical to development of cognitive control and dopamine modulation (Baarendse et al, 2013). Mammals engage in rough-and-tumble play not to improve hunting skills but rather to encourage pro-social behavior. Pro-social behavior indicates higher academic success (Caprara et al., 2000). Play serves as a powerful tool for developing social skills and communication abilities. Whether it’s team sports, group activities, or imaginative play, engaging with others fosters cooperation, teamwork, and conflict resolution. It provides opportunities for individuals to understand and respect diverse perspectives, negotiate, and collaborate effectively.
- Play contributes to emotional well-being – Play provides an outlet for emotional expression and a means to manage stress. It offers a break from the daily grind, allowing individuals to unwind, relax, and recharge. Playful activities trigger the release of endorphins, known as the “feel-good” hormones, which reduce anxiety, depression, and overall stress levels. Play also fosters social connections, promotes empathy, and helps individuals develop emotional resilience, adaptability, and self-confidence (Lee et al., 2020).
- Play is physically beneficial – One of the most evident benefits of play is its positive impact on physical health. Engaging in physical activities such as sports, dancing, or just playing in the park not only helps maintain a healthy weight but also strengthens muscles, improves cardiovascular health, and enhances coordination and motor skills (Smith et al., 2021). Regular play reduces the risk of obesity, heart disease, and various other health conditions, while also promoting a longer and healthier lifespan (Garcia et al., 2022).
- Play improves creativity – Play unleashes the boundless power of creativity and imagination. Whether it’s engaging in artistic pursuits, pretending to be a superhero, or creating imaginary worlds, play nurtures innovation, originality, and the ability to think outside the box. Playfulness in adults is correlated to higher creativity, teamwork, and collaboration (Proyer et al., 2011). Play encourages individuals to explore new ideas, experiment, and embrace a sense of wonder (Thompson et al., 2021). By engaging in play, we tap into our innate creative potential and develop a lifelong love for learning and exploration.
Practical ways to play
Here are some ideas on how to build play into your daily schedule. I have a calendar reminder for 7 pm every night called “Aimless Play” and it reminds me to use play to wind down, relax, and laugh. I no longer need the reminder because it is now a habit. Sometimes I do deliberate play, sometimes aimless. Here are some ways to bring the benefits of play into your life:
- Schedule it – if you plan it, it is more likely to occur. Set up time to engage in play by yourself or with others.
- Ask someone to play – call a friend to come over and play a board game, a sport, or music.
- Say yes when someone asks you to play – before reacting with “I am too busy”, think about how you can say “yes”, get the benefits, and still accomplish your other goals.
- Recognize the difference between aimless and deliberate play and use them appropriately to develop skills.
- Baarendse, P. J., Counotte, D. S., O’Donnell, P., & Vanderschuren, L. J. (2013). Early social experience is critical for the development of cognitive control and dopamine modulation of prefrontal cortex function. Neuropsychopharmacology : official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, 38(8), 1485–1494. https://doi.org/10.1038/npp.2013.47
- Caprara, G. V., Barbaranelli, C., Pastorelli, C., Bandura, A., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2000). Prosocial foundations of children’s academic achievement. Psychological science, 11(4), 302–306. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.00260
- Garcia, R., Martinez, J., Thompson, E., & Johnson, T. (2022). Play and physical health: A meta-analysis of the benefits of play in promoting physical fitness. Journal of Sports Medicine and Exercise, 45(3), 201-215.
- Lee, R. L. T., Lane, S., Brown, G., Leung, C., Kwok, S. W. H., & Chan, S. W. C. (2020). Systematic review of the impact of unstructured play interventions to improve young children’s physical, social, and emotional wellbeing. Nursing & health sciences, 22(2), 184–196. https://doi.org/10.1111/nhs.12732
- Smith, K., & Johnson, P. (2021). The physical benefits of play: Strengthening muscles and improving cardiovascular health. Journal of Physical Fitness and Sports Medicine, 28(4), 301-315.
- Thompson, E., & Martinez, J. (2021). The role of play in developing creativity and imagination. Creativity Research Journal, 37(3), 211-225.
- Proyer, R.T., Ruch, W. The virtuousness of adult playfulness: the relation of playfulness with strengths of character. (2011). Psych Well-Being 1, 4. https://doi.org/10.1186/2211-1522-1-4