The Importance of Play in Mental Health

Published On: April 26, 2023Categories: Blog

Far too often, we push Play to the side in our lives, and we wonder why our mental health suffers! When we feel depressed, anxious, irritable, or other adverse mental health symptoms, it’s easy to write it off as the result of us being too busy–too many responsibilities, too much job pressure, too many chores or errands, and generally too much being asked of our time. While this may be true, what if part of the issue was not that too much is being asked of our time, and more that we aren’t allocating our time to the things our brains truly need to thrive?

It’s easy to hear “just spend more time playing” and file it away under other feel-good “self-care” suggestions like “take a bubble bath” or “have some chocolate,” but the truth is, Play is not just something that’s fun to do, it’s necessary to maintain our mental health. And play is far from just games and sports: as we’ve talked about at-length in the past, Play is about how we think and how we engage in the world. It’s about grappling with complex ideas, non-linear solutions to problems, and thinking creatively about the world around us. So how does that help our mental health?

Plays calms our rattled minds 

Having free play–whether as children or as adults–can provide immediate relief to many mental health symptoms. Studies have shown that the act of playing not only releases Dopamine (the chemical responsible for feelings of pleasure), but can also lower Cortisol levels, which are responsible for making us feel stressed. So when you play, you not only get the immediate reward of the fun activity, but your acute and ambient stress levels lower as well, leaving you feeling more relaxed as you leave playtime.

And when you play with others, relationships build–not only socially, but biochemically as well. Oxytocin (the hormone responsible for building bonds and feelings of affection between humans) is also increased when playing, which helps build our friendships and relationships with our playmates. And the more socially engaged we are, the better we feel emotionally–so play really does improve our mental health on a very physical level! 

Play builds stronger brains 

Not only does play help our mental health in the short term, but it’s also hugely important for our long-term mental health and well-being as well. In addition to helping us build relationships by engaging in our social skills and releasing Oxytocin, play is one of the most effective ways to encourage and engage neuroplasticity. This is the term for how our brains are flexible and malleable–in essence, our behavior can either change or reinforce the neural pathways within our brains.

By engaging in activities that force us to think laterally, toy with new concepts, and partake in unfamiliar social scripts, we build new neural pathways and strengthen those that are most important to us and integrate all parts of our brains together so that they work in harmony with each other.

For example, play helps strengthen the Amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for risk sensation and our “fight or flight” response. Without significant time devoted to play during childhood development, brains can get stuck in this fight or flight survival mode without being able to expand much outside of it, leading to behavior that can be selfish, anti-social, and even criminal. By allowing for regular play, we build the strength of the Amygdala and its integration with other parts of our brains, allowing us to keep ourselves safe physically and tend to our social needs in equal measure.

The benefits of playtime in schools 

All of the above is why play is such an important part of the school day during childhood development. It’s easy to think of recess in school as existing purely for the fun of a child, like giving them a piece of candy. When schools approach recess as a “treat” that can be used as a bargaining chip for good behavior (or even removed as a matter of policy), we aren’t just taking away 15 minutes of “fun;” we take away a hugely beneficial time for the neurological development of our kids!

And the importance of play extends beyond just recess as well–after all, if all “play” meant was physical activity, then our typical highly structured Physical Education (PE) classes would suffice as a replacement–but that’s simply not the case. As we know, Play is about the freedom to do, think, and experiment as you please. That’s why free play–whether in the form of recess or in the form of classroom time dedicated to brainstorming, free association, and creative thinking–is so crucial for the well-being of our youth and the mental health of the adults they grow into. 

Maintain play in the workplace 

Just as with kids, adults need play too–and again, just as with kids, this doesn’t only mean a field to run around in (or a foosball table in the break room). When adults in the workplace have that space to think freely, to try new ideas even if they lead to failure, and to play with new concepts and ways of thinking, we maintain that neuroplasticity that tends to otherwise go away as our brains age. By practicing play, we retain the ability to think in new and creative ways that can lead to huge benefits for ourselves and the organizations we work for. From childhood all the way to adulthood, it’s important to stop taking Play away!

Ideas to Reflect On:

  • Thinking back to your childhood, what’s something you learned from recess that you otherwise wouldn’t have?
  • Does your work organization make room for play, whether in the form of fun and games or in the space to think freely?
  • How do you see your mental health and mood state changing when you’re given time and space to play and have fun?

Whether you work in business, education, or healthcare, FISH! offers accessible, intuitive solutions to empower your workers, bring your team together, and avoid the symptoms of impending burnout. We invite you to contact us today at 800.695.4534 or to speak with our cultural specialists, who will help you find the right FISH! Philosophy solutions that will nurture your organizational culture and motivate your team!

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Whether you work in business, education, or healthcare, FISH! offers accessible, intuitive solutions to empower your workers, bring your team together, and introduce Play into your organization. We invite you to contact us today at 800.695.4534 or to speak with our cultural specialists, who will help you find the right FISH! Philosophy solutions that will nurture your organizational culture and motivate your team!

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