The importance of play for developing a healthy brain and body
According to the physicist Albert Einstein, “play is the highest form of research.” But did you know that play actually builds your brain and that it’s good for all of us not just children?
Play is the glue that connects learning with memory and enables behavioral and mental flexibility. It reduces stress hormones (e.g., cortisol and adrenaline) and releases endorphins the body’s natural feel-good hormones that promote well-being and even temporarily relieve pain. Play also helps reduce depression, improve cognitive health, and lowers the risk of developing neurodegenerative conditions like dementia.
Our brains literally change as we learn. Animals that engage in playful behaviors for long periods of time have greater amounts of brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) that plays a main role in developing and maintaining neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the flexibility and growth potential of the brain to learn.
Taking a closer look, think of adult play as more of a mental approach or mindset related to activities vs. the play activities we engaged in as kids playing with Lego sets or climbing trees. There are five key qualities associated with play: joy, meaning, active engagement, iteration, and social interaction. As an example of how to apply this, let's consider these qualities and how they relate to a somatic movement practice:
JOYFUL discovering new ways to move that feel good, sparking dopamine in the brain
MEANINGFUL linking our movement experience on the floor when we’re out of gravity, with how we move through the world in gravity
ACTIVELY ENGAGED being fully present when we’re moving
ITERATIVE by practicing movements in different ways, we can adapt and improve our body and skills
SOCIALLY INTERACTIVE moving with others and sharing our experience
Can you remember the last time you played, and you felt joyful and fully immersed in the moment? If you’re like a lot of adults, not so often. If play is such a feel-good activity, why don’t we do more of it?
What gets in the way of those fun filled experiences is when you chose or prioritize something else over play (workaholic tendency alert!) … paying the bills, getting promoted, working overtime to save up and buy that new car or vacation home you’ve always dreamed about. And then there are the many stresses of everyday life like:
While these various stressors may be fine in moderation, when piled on year after year they tend to build up and cause inflammatory responses in the brain.
Not only do we not learn so well or easily when we’ve numbed out with carbs or running on empty, but our entire system gets out of balance resulting in various dis-ease conditions, narrow thinking, and chronically tight muscles. Therein lies the adage that as people get older, they get stuck in their ways i.e., not so playful and their bodies literally stuck in stiffness.
Aside from engaging in chess or swinging a baseball bat, play is a mindset and can be applied in other domains of life. Think about the ways you currently play. Chasing your dog around the sofa or engaging in peek-a-boo with the newest addition to the family.
Next time you begin your practice of moving somatically, meditating, or breathing add a sense of playfulness to your process. In the kitchen of the inner realms the neuro ingredients for the “play recipe” consist of a sense of adventure, awareness, curiosity, novelty, and rest. This mindset results in restoration and rejuvenation of the body-mind and an abundance of the relaxation that goes along with it.
And one last thing, give yourself permission to get messy. Remember the gales of laughter around pillow or water fights anyone? You’re still young at heart so go have some fun. Enjoy your practice!