The Importance of Play

Soccer icon David Beckham has said that he plays with Lego pieces to control stress. Comedian Ellen DeGeneres playfully pranks her television guests. While serving as Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron was known to decompress at the end of a long day with the video game Angry Birds.

The importance of play for children is well documented.. But what if I told you play was just as beneficial and important for us, as adults?  You see, in this day and age, work, personal life, finances, and being parents isn’t the only thing taking up bandwidth and causing stress. We now also have to incorporate social media and all media and information that is at our fingertips and in our face.

What recent studies are finding, is that play isn’t just about goofing off; it can also be an important means of reducing stress and contributing to overall well-being.

Playful adults have the ability to transform everyday situations, even stressful ones, into something entertaining, Barnett says. She co-authored a study that found highly playful young adults — those who rated themselves high on personality characteristics such as being spontaneous or energetic, or open to “clowning around” — reported less stress in their lives and possessed better coping skills. Perhaps they have these attributes because they are better able to keep stress in perspective, Barnett theorizes.

Being a playful adult may also make us more attractive to the opposite sex, according to a study from Pennsylvania State University. Researchers there asked 250 students to rate 16 characteristics that they might look for in a long-term mate. “Sense of humor” came in first among the males and second among the females, “fun-loving” came in third for both, and being “playful” placed fourth for women and fifth for men.

Lead researcher Garry Chick speculates that the attraction to playfulness may be rooted in evolution and what we value in a mate. “In men, playfulness signals non-aggressiveness, meaning they’d be less likely to harm a mate or an offspring,” he said, “and in women, it signals youth and fertility.”

Not all adults play alike, of course. In a study published in April in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, researchers examined the complexities of adult playfulness in an effort to tease out patterns of behavior.

The researchers identified four types of playful adults: those who outwardly enjoy fooling around with friends, colleagues, relatives and acquaintances; those who are generally lighthearted and not preoccupied by the future consequences of their behavior; those who play with thoughts and ideas; and those who are whimsical, exhibiting interest in strange and unusual things and are amused by small, everyday observations.

Lead researcher René Proyer, a professor of psychology at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany, says that by showing how varied playfulness can be, he hopes that people will be encouraged to become more playfully engaged with others. “A less playful person can learn to be more playful, much like an introvert can learn to be a better speaker by observing the techniques extroverts use,” Proyer says.

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