“Play” has serious benefits for adults

A psychiatrist’s study of murderers found one thing in common: They all lacked play in their childhoods. Here’s how his research applies to adulthood.

4 min readOct 17, 2019


While the benefits of unstructured play for children are well-documented, it turns out the benefits of play for adults are anything but trivial.

Psychiatrist Stuart Brown started researching play when he found that many people who commit violent crimes in adulthood lack developmental play in childhood. In his subsequent decades cataloging subjects’ relationships with play, he’s found a “strong correlation between playful activity and success.”

Brown’s nonprofit, the National Institute for Play, asserts that those benefits don’t end in grade school. “Throughout the lifespan,” the NIP writes, “play supports neurological growth and development while building complex, skilled, flexible, responsive and socially adept brains.”

In short, play keeps our brains sharp and limber long into adulthood. But, short of a game of freeze-tag, what is “play,” really?

Play is purposefully purposeless

Play can be physical (like a pick-up game of flag football), it can be social, (like a game of Twister), or solo (like doing a puzzle or journaling). The key differentiator? Play is all about the action, not the outcome. As Brown puts it, “if the purpose of an activity is more important than the activity itself, it’s probably not play.”

When it comes to adult extracurricular activities, the line between play/and self-improvement gets blurred quickly. And many of us are guilty of turning our playful hobbies into part-time jobs.

Let’s consider some examples:

Taking a welding class just for the fun of it: Play
X Taking a welding class to level-up your career as a submarine repairperson: Not play

X Learning Italian to woo your sun-kissed Tuscan lover: Not play
Learning Italian because, hey, that’s amoré: Play

Taking a yoga class because it feels good to move: Play
X Taking a yoga class to become the next Jean Claud Van Damme: Not play

Don’t be a Hobby Goblin (trademark pending) — allow yourself the pleasure of doing something just because.

But play does have tangible benefits

The irony is that playing just for the sake of it has meaningful outcomes all the same.

Play is how we connect and build community (such as when we attend a team outing or join a beer kickball league) and form lasting relationships: “Couples who sustain a sense of mutual playfulness with each other tend to work out the wrinkles in their relationships much better than those who are really serious,” Brown says.

A number of studies also suggest that playing games or doing puzzles helps improve our memory and thinking skills as we age and increase our resilience in stressful situations. At work, play has been found to “speed up learning, enhance productivity and increase job satisfaction.” And when we lose our sense of playfulness? Brown warns we may “get cranky, rigid, feel stuck in a rut or feel victimized by life.”

Practice makes play-fect (sorry)

“A less playful person can learn to be more playful,” professor of psychology René Proyer says. The key is to incorporate playfulness into your everyday life, be goofing around with friends or colleagues, or just finding amusement in “small, everyday observations.”

“As we grow up, the acceptance for play seems to diminish and the expectation is that we should eat, sleep and work,” Jennie Sumrell of PlayCore, an organization dedicated to “building community through play” tells Speechless. “The truth is that play seems to be one of the most advanced methods nature has invented to allow a complex brain to create itself.”

“Play has the power to deeply enrich your adult life,” urges Brown, “if you pay attention to it.”

The Point…

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