Article 3: The Need to Play
Updated: Mar 6
Have you ever stopped to watch children play? Often, through excited laughter, they use play to engage with others or to entertain themselves. Children understand the importance of play. Sadly, somewhere along the way, most adults have lost that sense of play. Instead, most subjugate play to the bottom of their priorities or ignore it altogether assuming it is something better left to childhood. Unfortunately, when we do this we lose what play offers in our lives. To play is to know joy. With this joy comes an excitement to be with others, to follow a passion, to entertain oneself, or to simply be alive. Play has a vital role in our lives as adults and the need for play does not end.
Imagine a couple who have been together for several years. They live together, they both have careers, and they always thought they would one day raise a family. However, they are each beginning to question this idea. Over time, they found that they were good at the “doing”. They paid their mortgage, cared for their pets, and achieved their financial goals. They also showed nurture for one another. Neither partner doubted the love of the other. Eventually, though, they began to lose the desire to be together. They began to find that their life as a couple felt dull. They were confused by this. On the surface, they were doing and achieving all they set out to do. They cared for each other deeply, yet they were not satisfied.
For the couple described above, they have forgotten how to enjoy life, especially life with one another. They see life as an endless stream of responsibilities, tasks, and problems to manage. They are sharing the same space, but they aren’t enjoying each other or taking time to do things that are fun, release stress, and bring about feelings of contentment and happiness. They have forgotten how to play.
Without play, we find that living becomes dull, we may feel depressed, anxious, or angry. We often attempt to alleviate those feelings by creating situations that we hope will shift how we feel. For example, our couple we have been discussing sought joy through a mortgage, career growth, and “adulting”. Sadly, the attempts don’t achieve the goal of creating joy. The attempts they put in place to replace play lack spontaneity and become rote.
As we discussed in the previous article, “The Importance of Nurture”, attachment to others and the need for connection is critical in finding balance in our lives and relationships. For those who do not have this sense of balance the idea of play can seem indulgent, impractical, and a waste of time; it takes away from the “adulting”. If we don’t feel connected or if we have not yet met the structural goals we have set for ourselves, we often believe we don’t deserve to experience joy. We question what is wrong with us, and struggle to grasp how to shift into a place where we can put the burdens of life down and make time to feel better. Likewise, even those with healthy attachments may find that they default to check-lists, goals, and other structured means of verifying a sense of achievement, but still lack in joy. The sometimes overwhelming need to handle all of the adult responsibilities that we must manage seems to take precedence over the need for enjoyment. We may try to do fun things, but then feel guilty about “wasting time” since we don’t view play as a successful accomplishment. The reason many people struggle with this is because play is not measurable–we can’t demonstrate how much we “earn” by playing like we can when we cash a paycheck. But it is just as important for our wellbeing as having the financial means to cover our necessities like food and shelter.
As adults we are taught not to play. We are expected to be “responsible” and leave the play to children; therefore, we view play as childish. Children constantly seek ways to make their lives fun and interesting. They use their imaginations to keep themselves occupied when they are alone, and they fuel each other’s imaginative play when they are together. Children thrive when they play–games, make believe, art–all of these things feed their souls and bring them joy. As adults we also need to play, and not leave this leg of the Nurture-Play-Structure stool to childhood.
Now, imagine the couple mentioned above had not lost their sense of play. Perhaps over the course of their relationship they had continued to invest in shared experiences of joy as they did when they began dating. By keeping play a part of their relationship, this couple continued to experience joy together, a desire for one another, and contentment in life.
Because it is often hard for adults to incorporate play into our lives, our sense of balance shifts and they struggle with sometimes overwhelming negative emotions. By bringing play, thus joy, into our lives we can begin to regain balance on our Nurture-Play-Structure stool. Play for adults can look like many things, including theater, sporting events, date nights, hobbies, inside jokes, reading a book, etc. Play can be as unique to a couple or individual as a fingerprint.
Through finding a balance of nurture, play and structure, we are reminded that we deserve joy in our lives while also ensuring other needs are met. This balance allows us to experience feelings of happiness and satisfaction with others and with ourselves. In our next article, we will discuss the final leg to our stool, structure, and how it helps bring balance to our lives while meeting our non-emotional needs.
Phillip Bass, MDiv, ThM, MA, LPCMHC, NCC, Licensed Qualified Supervisor
Kristin Mastro, MA, LCMHC, NCC, NCC, Licensed Qualified Supervisor