The Power of Play

Children playing on a beach, Marshall Islands [© Ami Vitale/Panos Pictures/Uniphoto Press]

Why do we play? The answer turns out to be more profound than we might think. Through play we learn to relate to and bond with others, our imagination is cultivated, we learn flexibility and perseverance, our brain develops, we become smarter, we develop motor skills, optimism and the ability to cope with stressful situations. We become integrated with others and with the world. Play is not an indulgence but a necessity originating deep within our evolutionary biology.

"Man is only fully human when he plays," wrote Schiller. The absence of play in childhood has been found to have serious negative consequences. Conversely, there is an observable link between a childhood of active play and success and accomplishment in adult life.

As we move into adulthood, the importance of play does not diminish, although the activities themselves may change. Instead of wild games of tag or hide-and-seek, we experience play in social banter, in being a part of large celebratory crowds (at sports events, rock concerts or festivals), in creative or imaginative pursuits, or just goofing around.

Play refreshes and energizes us. It keeps us open and receptive, it continues to shape our brains, nurturing our curiosity and developing our adaptability, our creativity and our ability to innovate--qualities that are of increasing importance to our global culture.

As the actor and theater maker Nagle Jackson observes, "The truly great advances of this generation will be made by those who can make outrageous connections, and only a mind which knows how to play can do that." Play, and our ability to recognize its importance, will help shape the future. But what is perhaps most essential about play is that it connects us to the joy of life.