Is child’s play the secret to a happier, healthier life?

We all know goofing around can be fun, but can it help us lead a better life, too?

Is child's play the secret to a happier, healthier life?

Source: Best Health magazine, Summer 2014

It was the egg flying through the air that got me thinking. My family had gathered for a reunion at my uncle’s cottage near the shores of Georgian Bay, Ont., in July 2008. We were having a good time bridging the distance that’s the result of being scattered from New Jersey to Hong Kong. Late on the second day, my uncle suggested a game of Egg Toss, where you throw a raw egg into the air for someone to catch. But for his version, he wanted to throw it from one side of his cottage to the other’over the roof.

In a moment, the reunion went from nice to electrifying. Grown-ups were running around laughing. The children hopped up and down with excitement. I thought it would be hopeless trying to catch such a small thing, but when my usually sedate brother spied the first egg twinkling in the sky and hurled himself toward it with a Michael Jordan-worthy leap, he caught it! Of course it exploded, shellacking him with eggy goop. He laughed so hard, he nearly inhaled some. My two-year-old second cousin threw open his arms and yelled, ‘BIG FUN!’

Big fun indeed’and that humble game might have been one of the best things I had done for myself in ages. New research is suggesting that play is not only essential for health and happiness, we must play if we want to be at our full potential.

We are the inheritors of a Puritan work ethic that says work is the path to happiness and success. In fact, we’re suspicious of play: Henry Ford supposedly frowned upon any smiling on his assembly lines, in case workers got the idea that fun was okay. Even now, the media landscape is awash with pundits’from business gurus to ‘Tiger Mothers”who say that in these uncertain times, we must focus on work and self-improvement. The result: Kids are over-programmed and bubble-wrapped, and adults are simply too exhausted to play.

A new focus on play
But even as we are tapping at our smartphones through dinner, play is creating a quiet revolution. Take the story of Right To Play (RTP), a Canada-based non-profit that was founded by four-time Norwegian Olympic speed-skating gold medallist Johann Olav Koss. Supported by many of our athletes, including Clara Hughes, Patrick Chan and Adam van Koeverden, RTP is in more than 20 countries affected by conflict, disease or poverty. It uses the transformative power of play to educate and empower youths.

I asked Koss why RTP focuses on play when surely the most pressing issue is keeping people alive and healthy. ‘A lot of people survive horrific experiences,’ he said. ‘And they deserve the chance at a decent life. It’s especially true for children; if they can’t recover and develop properly, they risk being trapped in the cycle of past generations. Play is the most effective and engaging way to impact how children act, see themselves and interpret their world. We can harness it to help them learn healthy behaviours, leadership skills and how to deal with conflict.’

One million kids participate in RTP activities every week. Play can disrupt the vicious cycle of poverty because it is an important ingredient of personal and social strength and development. Suffering isolates us, but play creates emotional interconnectivity’something we all crave.

Play’s power to create interconnectivity is probably even deeper. In his book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigor­ates the Soul, Stuart Brown, a medical doctor and president of the U.S.-based National Institute for Play, describes research done at UC-Berkeley as long ago as the 1960s. It demonstrated that if baby rats played with toys and each other, their brains became larger and more complex than those of rats that simply performed tasks, such as finding their way through a maze to get a treat. New studies show that play lights up different areas of the brain simultan­eously, indicating that play is creating new neural connections and strengthening existing ones. This boosts our memory and makes us smarter.

Play also makes us more creative, psychologists believe, as it develops styles of thinking and feeling that we draw on in the moment of creation. And, of course, play makes us feel better. Experts suggest that the lift in mood we get from play could be because it gives us a much-needed break from the worries and tasks of our everyday world.

So, what is play? Brian Sutton-Smith, Scholar in Residence at the library named in his honour at the National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y., has written a lot about the topic. He says, ‘We all know what playing feels like, because we’ve all played.’ It has certain properties: We are less aware of time and less self-conscious; we can improvise; and we usually want to keep playing.

Getting more of it might be as easy as removing what gets in the way of fun. Feeling that we don’t have enough time is one factor, but there are also others. At first, I didn’t want to join in the egg-toss; I was afraid that I would look silly. Who wants to risk a snap-happy person beaming your goofy actions around the world, capturing them for eternity? But it is worth letting your guard down in the name of play. That’s not to say we should put on clown noses and big shoes. It’s about approaching life with lightness and making time for joy.

After the egg-toss, I tried this attitude with my kids­’and it lightened the mood in our home and made it easier to get things done. For example, I have struggled to brush my three-year-old’s teeth. Jamie wriggles like a weasel and, I swear, enjoys my discomfort as I try to get rid of ‘sugar bugs.’ One evening, I turned it into a game. I said, in mock seriousness, ‘Whatever you do, don’t let me get that toothbrush in your mouth!’ Jamie’s big blue eyes got even bigger as he tried to work out whether or not I was serious. Then his little dimples appeared and he opened his mouth so widely, I could see his tonsils. In a silly voice that told him I wasn’t serious, I said, ‘Look at that open mouth! You’re a naughty boy!’ ‘Ahhh!’ he replied, mouth wide. And so a twice-daily ordeal has been transformed into fun.

In the realm of play research, sooner or later everyone quotes this line from Sutton-Smith: ‘The opposite of play isn’t boredom, it’s depression.’ When I spoke with him, it became clear why. ‘Play engages us in the possibilities of human life,’ he told me. It lets us explore our body’s strengths, the rules we live by, our talents, relationships, the world around us’the whole stuff of life. Ultimately, we are creative and gifted. We can lift ourselves to our dazzling potential by playing our way to health and happiness.


This article was originally titled "Play On" in the Summer 2014 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!