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This is the year I plan to have more fun. I plan to play. And though that may sound silly, adults can benefit from play in many ways.
Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, has spent his career studying play and its positive effects on adults. He has consulted for Fortune 500 companies on how to incorporate play into business settings and has used play therapies to help people struggling with clinical depression.
Why would a grown man put so much work into helping grown-ups play? Because, as Brown argues in his book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, play has the power to make you smarter.
We could all benefit from more ‘smarts’—so why not make it fun?
According to Brown:
- Play has been scientifically proved to be good for the brain: play stimulates nerve growth in the portions of the brain that process emotions and executive function.
- Sometimes the best way to learn a complicated subject is to play with it.
- Physical play delays mental decline in old age. Try something as simple as hacky sack.
“During play, the brain is making sense of itself through simulation and testing,” Brown writes. “Play activity is actually helping sculpt the brain. In play, we can imagine and experience situations we have never encountered before and learn from them.”
And that means that play has a direct role in creativity. “The genius of play is that, in playing, we create imaginative new cognitive combinations,” Brown continues. “And in creating those novel combinations, we find what works.”
For adults improving your creative ability makes you a better problem solver. And no matter whether you hold a job or are a stay-at-home-parent or a retiree — you likely solve several problems a day.
Now if you think you’re beyond the age of learning new tricks, don’t forget you have an amazing “plastic” brain. Dr. Cutler wrote about neuroplasticity recently — the ability of your brain to reconfigure neuronal circuits and speed up how fast they work.
With each new experience (thought, stimulus, or event) your brain slightly re-wires its physical structure. This means you can learn to like new foods tastes, evolve your thoughts into good-feeling ones (i.e. thoughts that cause good emotions within you), and even train new motor skills through repeated thoughts.
So it makes perfect sense that creative play could improve your cognitive habits and improve performance where your creative skills are needed.
What forms of play can help your grown-up mind the best? According to Brown, play is a state of mind, not a specific activity. So you may want to see what’s easily available to you and would allow you a break or two during the day to have some play time.
I plan to take up coloring. Adult coloring books are all the rage now. I’m looking forward to spending a little quiet time at the office during breaks to color a page or two. The break can provide much needed time to refocus on my tasks.
Revisiting board games can be great fun. Playing with friends or family usually ends up in raucous entertainment as well. And laughing is something we should all also plan to do more of in the coming year. Laughing can improve your short-term memory and delay cognitive decline.  Just 20 minutes of laughing can lower your blood pressure and decrease your level of cortisol, which is connected to stress.
However you decide to go about, just be sure to go for it. Play can be fun, fabulous and good for you!