Boost Your Brain Through Play

Boost Your Brain Through Play

A willingness to cut loose and have some fun is more important for your health than you may realize.

Photo Credit: Justin, via Flickr Creative Commons

Play comes naturally to children. They don’t need instructions; they simply find what they enjoy and do it. They have an innate ability to harness imagination with delight and discovery as they unleash creativity with joy and self-expression. However, when we become adults, we often find ourselves held captive by the demands of a heavily scheduled life. Our long to-do lists and weighty obligations don’t allow for playtime, which is more important for our health and well-being than we realize.

Our vitality is restored and our health improves when we allow ourselves to let loose, relax and have fun. Play has the ability to lift us, heal us and connect us. Play offers us a gift beyond compare—the mental, emotional, physical and social rejuvenation that comes with light-heartedness.

Awaken the kid within
Kevin Carroll, an author and motivational speaker, travels around the world speaking to businesses, organizations and individuals about the importance of play over a lifetime. Born into impoverished circumstances, his parents abandoned him at the age of six. He went to live with his grandparents and quickly discovered the playground that was across the street. It was there that he found a discarded red rubber ball that he says saved his life and fueled his dreams.

In his book, Rules of the Red Rubber Ball, he explains how playing with that one red rubber ball taught him speed, dedication, nimbleness, passion, motivation and strength. Play, he concludes, has the potential to lead us to joy and connection with others. He observes that many adults push play to the far margins of their lives or even forget about it entirely. He wrote, “We do not have to live this way. Adult responsibilities do not mean that there is no place for childlike joys. Delight and productivity can coexist. We can learn how to awaken the kid within.”

Dr. Stuart Brown, a pioneering researcher and founder of the non-profit organization, The National Institute for Play, conducted over 8,000 interviews cataloging the negative and positive contributions of play. Negative consequences that may arise from the lack of it include inflexibility, social and emotional detachment and violence.

On the positive end of the spectrum, notes Brown, play generates optimism, makes perseverance fun, leads to mastery, gives the immune system a bounce, fosters empathy and promotes a sense of belonging and community.

Play for brain health
In his book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, Dr. Brown notes that adults need to play in order to keep their brains alert and flexible. He writes: “Nothing lights up the brain like play. It fires up the cerebellum and puts impulses into the frontal lobe. This is the executive portion of the brain that helps contextual memory to be developed and so much more.”

Play fosters social learning and social bonds, which are key areas for generating meaningful engagement and personal happiness. Trust and emotional regulation is developed through adaptation to play signals that include vocal, gestural, facial and other body language communications. Through play we develop skills of strategizing, decision-making, risk-taking and empathy. We are designed to play throughout our whole lifetime. “Play is more than just fun,” concludes Dr. Brown. “It is fertilizer for brain growth and social development. It’s crazy not to use it.”

Play for its own sake
How we enjoy play will mean different things to different people. One person may enjoy competitive sports while another delights in the creativity of arts and crafts. What Dr. Brown found through his research is this guideline: the most beneficial and freeing aspect of play, whatever you choose to do, is that you do it for its own sake. Simply put, if its purpose is more important than the act of doing it, it’s probably not play.

One aspect that limits our freedom to play in modern day society is that on most days we are cooped up indoors. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans spend close to 90 percent of their time indoors. To counter this trend, a report in the Journal of Environmental Psychology reflects five studies found that being outside was associated with greater vitality.

For many of us, nature was our first and favorite playground. When playing outside every one of our senses were activated as we explored the great outdoors. The cool grass beneath our feet, the wind in our face, the fragrance of the flowers and the songs of the birds surrounded us in a cocoon of sweetness. Whether we were riding our bikes, playing tag or climbing trees, we felt unburdened and free, engaged and energized.

Think back for a moment to the most joyful, playful image that you can recall. What type of play brought you purposeless joy, easiness, pleasure and fun? Taking time to play is medicine for body and soul. It doesn’t need to be justified; it needs to be identified, practiced and above all else, enjoyed.

Why delay a moment longer? Seize the moment (and a red rubber ball!). Go out and play.

This content was originally published on Ornish Living.

Learn more ways to live your healthiest life with tips from Dean Ornish.

Medically reviewed in May 2018.

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