The Importance of Play for Adults

The Importance of Play for Adults

Kellsey Evers

Staff Writer

When I started my first full-time job after graduating from college, the first thing I complained about was that it seemed like I no longer had enough time for myself. It felt like my job had become my entire life, right from the beginning. Sure, there were those few precious hours following work and before bedtime, along with the much sought-after weekends, but it never felt like enough. I needed more free time, more time to do what I wanted to do, rather than what I had to do. While I still struggle to carve out that time for myself, I’ve begun to wonder why I, and many adults, long to have time to enjoy an activity—to “play”—and why it’s necessary.

“Play” is a term typically associated with children. After all, children play games to learn and grow. “Work” is more associated with adults, and is sometimes considered the opposite of “play.” Work is more serious, more focused, and more results-oriented than its childhood antithesis. You rarely hear anyone talk about adults “playing.” It just sounds, well, childish. Yet, play is not something that ends with childhood, or at least it shouldn’t be. Dr. Stewart Brown, founder of a nonprofit organization called the National Institute for Play, offers his own definition of play: “Play is something done for its own sake,” he asserts. “It’s voluntary, it’s pleasurable, it offers a sense of engagement, it takes you out of time. And the act itself is more important than the outcome.” By referring to play in this way, Dr. Brown removes it from its context of childhood and instead gives the word a broader meaning: anything and everything we do for the sake of enjoyment.

But play is even more than that. Many activities that fall under the umbrella of “play” involve teaming up with others. Whether it’s a board game, a soccer league, or even karaoke, these activities require us to engage with others and, as a result, help maintain our social well-being. We bond, strategize, and enjoy ourselves together. Without such interactions, we would have few opportunities to connect with others, build relationships, and grow as individuals in a relaxed environment.

Another way we play is through common hobbies. From collecting and painting, to building miniature ships in bottles, our hobbies say a lot about us. In a 2016 article for Quartz, Alex Preston writes a “defense of hobbies,” claiming that hobbies “should be a form of dissent, a radical expression of our individuality.” Hobbies, more than a career or a job title, are a true showcase of who a person is, what they enjoy, and what they value.

Preston also discusses how hobbies give us a sense of accomplishment, saying that they are “a sphere in which we feel we can achieve a kind of mastery usually denied to us in our wider personal and professional lives.” Many aspects of our lives can be draining, unfulfilling, or even left unfinished. Hobbies offer us the opportunity to find the purpose, satisfaction, and conclusiveness we crave.

Interestingly enough, one of the most popular and more recent hobbies among adults is coloring. While coloring books for adults have been around for decades, they have seen a significant surge in book sales in recent years. According to the Washington Post, Neilsen Bookscan estimates that some 12 million were sold in 2015, quite a leap from the 1 million sold in 2014. But what exactly makes coloring books so appealing to adults all of a sudden?

First and foremost, coloring is relaxing. In “Why Adults Are Buying Coloring Books (For Themselves),” published in the New Yorker, Adrienne Raphel contends that part of this newfound popularity is due to “marketing that associates [coloring books for adults] with such therapeutic ends as anxiety- and stress-reduction.” Coloring offers a chance to unwind and briefly escape from the demands of everyday life, something surely desirable to most adults.

Coloring also, naturally, harkens back to childhood. Raphel explains that coloring for adults is “part of a larger and more pervasive fashion among adults for childhood objects and experiences.” Since many adults perceive childhood as a simpler period of their lives, characterized by creativity and exploration, it makes sense that they would want to return to the activities associated with that time.

With so much pressure placed on adults and working individuals today, play is a necessary component of a well-balanced life. But the importance of play is not restricted to the personal realm alone; it’s important in the professional world as well. In fact, many businesses are discovering that prioritizing play can drastically improve the work environment. In same article for Quartz, Preston also notes, “Google discovered that its 20% rule—allowing employees to spend 20% of their work time pursuing projects of their own choosing—led to more focused, productive employees.” This suggests that facilitating workers’ pursuit of play could be equally beneficial to employers and employees alike.

To take Google’s idea a step further: if companies want to see more productivity, then they need to encourage active play during the workday, not just tacitly condone it. When someone takes a break from their work, it’s important that they keep their brain active and engaged. Passive activities, like scrolling through social media newsfeeds or watching a YouTube video, are enticing because they’re quick and easy, and provide instant gratification. But the benefits of passive diversions are minimal at best, because they don’t allow us to learn or engage in critical thought. A far better alternative is something playful and active—perhaps even a game.

According to Dr. Jane McGonigal, author of SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient–Powered by the Science of Games, “Playing games is not a waste of time. It is a skillful, purposeful activity that gives you direct control over your thoughts.” Games and other similarly playful, engaging activities foster creativity and cognitive thinking and in so doing, enhance one’s ability to learn new things, reason through problems, and retain and recall information. If such activities are integrated into an average workday, it could lead to increased productivity and a happier, healthier workforce.

If businesses chose to make it a priority to afford their employees more opportunities for play, then they would stand to see vast improvements to worker morale and the work environment. More chances for creativity and self-exploration would not only prove to employees that their well-being is valued, it would also foster a positive, reinforcing professional atmosphere where the focus is not just on fulfilling tasks, but also on learning and growing as a worker and as a person. Happier, more fulfilled workers are more likely to become focused, engaged, and productive employees. Play has a significant impact on our personal lives, but interestingly enough, it can be an integral part of a successful business, too.