When I think of play, I am immediately reminded of Dibs in Search of Self, the groundbreaking case study published by Virgina Axlin in 1964. If you are a licensed clinician or completed a graduate level psychology or developmental degree, you’ve most likely read this book. Play therapy is the first experience children have of what we call, doing the work. It is a very different kind of therapy, where the child and therapist engage in play and through the act of the therapist holding the space, allowing the child to lead the play, and well timed and attuned interventions based in real time - growth, change, and positive outcomes are achieved. It can be a magical experience for both therapist and child. Children feel seen and heard, and the therapist gets to engage in this very intellectually stimulating kind of therapy. Both holding the duality of the present, with very cleanly delivered thoughts about what is taking place. Simply put, it is super cool for everyone involved.
And that’s really how play is. It is super cool. There is great freedom in play, and a very deep level of problem solving. Through play, we work out problems in the safety of putting just one foot in reality. We test ourselves, our limits and most importantly we test outcomes.
The benefits of play have been widely studied. Play improves everything from attention, language skills, creative problem solving, and even math skills. Most importantly, play actually stimulates the growth of the cerebral cortex. In a landmark 1964 study published by Marion Diamond, researchers demonstrated that rats raised in exciting and toy-filled environments actually had developed thicker cerebral cortexes then rats raised in isolation. This exciting research was expanded upon in 2003 and 2007 in separate studies demonstrating that after periods of rough-and-tumble play, rats displayed increased levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in their brains. It just so happens that BDNF is essential for the growth and maintenance of brain cells. BDNF levels also increase after rats are allowed to explore.
This of course closely transfers over to humans, both child and adult. While we are openly encouraged to play as children, as we age, we experience fewer and fewer opportunities to play. But, the benefits remain as significant for adults as they do for children. So how do we fix that? Well, first it’s important to decide what feels like to play. For some it is taking a run, being out in the garden, or playing a video game. For others, like me, it is hosting a podcast where super fun people splash around in the deep end of the psychology pool with me. Play for me has an intellectual component. Play is a wide and deep ocean. The rules change as we age. It’s not simply hula hooping, or playing tag. Sometimes play looks more like a task.
Mostly I think though, play is a willingness to not have an outcome. A place where a conclusion doesn’t need to be reached. Time spent just being in something. With something, until we are full.
For more on PLAYFULNESS listen to JOY IS NOW Episode 48 with Marissa Huber