Play is Healthy for Kids and Adults

Children love to play and do so naturally and without being self-conscious. Below is a story that illustrates the deep emotional bonds that children form through play. Personal details have been changed to protect privacy.

A Story of Children’s Friendship

Several years ago, took my 8 year old daughter to visit our close friends in our old home town. We had moved from there more than a year ago and the girls had been inseparable friends before. My daughter had changed from a ballet dancer dressed in frills and sparkles to a tomboy who loved softball, running & cycling. Her tomboyish friend was now a star cheerleader & she had a new baby sister. The two girls had barely said hello when they were off running and gallivanting around the house, making up plays, throwing balls, jumping on the trampoline, playing school with their American Girl dolls and bowling on the WII.

The two friends had missed each other a great deal, been through some difficult experiences and some growth-producing ones. The separation was painful for both of them. There were many changes for the girls to process, yet they did so without talking about them directly. Through role play and skill-based games they naturally reconnected and learned about each other as they now were. The girls’ focus on having fun in the moment led them to accept each other unconditionally. Only occasionally would they jokingly refer to previous selves or memories of playing together before.

Adults in the same situation are often more awkward and more tentative. They sum each other up first and make momentary evaluative judgments. Are you now thinner, fatter, richer, poorer? Do we still have anything in common? Was there enough staying in touch and reciprocation? While in most cases, the friendship is still solid, adults may take longer to connect again. In children’s ability to lose themselves in the moment, unconditional acceptance is born. “I’m here.” “I’m here too.”. “Great! Now let’s go have fun! ” How wonderful it would be if we adults could preserve that sense of flow and playful exploration in our relationships. Adults do sometimes find that special friend or partner that they can be themselves with in a childlike way. The person who knows you well and accepts you for who you really are. The person who hugs you when you are sad and celebrates your successes with you. And, luckily, this was the case for me with this child’s mom. So we adults could “play” too, by talking and laughing and connecting amid the chaos of family life.

The Importance of Nurturing Your Inner Child

Many patients come into therapy having lost touch with their inner children. Those inner children, having been hurt, rejected, ignored, or made to grow up too soon, become angry voices that burst out loudly at awkward moments or with inappropriate intensity. In therapy we help our clients to give their inner children permission to come out and speak their needs. Be these needs for comfort, connection, peace, play or expression, clients need to learn that feelings and needs are an integral part of their experience of living and cannot just be suppressed or shut down. How many alcohol and drug problems, eating disorders, and depressive episodes could we prevent by allowing our children just to be and to play without judging, criticizing, controlling, over-scheduling, pressuring, neglecting, or abusing them? Mental imagery, creative writing, mindfulness, or asking questions that engage imagination and connect with clients’ own metaphors can be used to reconnect clients with their childlike sense of playful exploration. We can encourage clients to connect with nature or to take time to nurture themselves. Nurturing your inner child in this way makes you feel happier, more open, and more alive. In this space, you can more freely connect with other people and with your own authentic self in a spirit of playful exploration. Ironically, we can help clients to mature psychologically by teaching them how to be playful!

Comments 13

  1. March 14, 2011

    Very nice reminder to connect with our inner children & play!

  2. March 14, 2011

    Very thoughtful and insightful piece. I agree that it's important to know our inner child to help us understand ourselves better as an adult. One book I love that has helped me is Julia Cameron's The Gold Road. Thanks for your post!

  3. March 14, 2011

    Kathy & Marly,
    Thanks for your support and encouragement. In our society today there is not enough play time for either children or adults. Thanks for the book recommendation, Marly. I will go and find it.

  4. March 15, 2011

    Hello Melanie! Thanks for your words in "Ivrit".

    Just loved your post, your analysis is perfect. 'We must keep our hearts and tongues as if we were still children' – Said the sages. It's so important for children to have adequate time and space to play … I participate in the orphanage as foster mother, one of the first steps was made more spaces to activities, more spaces for playing and more games. This has helped our children forget the sadness of the lack of true family and makes they learn more.

    I wish you peace.

  5. March 15, 2011

    Great post and so, so true. Glad it was a great day, too 🙂

  6. March 15, 2011

    Love the focus on the inner child's need to "come out" and play. So sad, yet so true about all the adult issues which are so self-destructive, as a result of the client's childhood and ineffective parenting.

    I've spent many a session coaxing the supressed and shut down parts of my adult client's behavior…when they can behave in less constricted, more accepting and loving ways, it's such a pleasure to be a part of.

    Yes, yes, yes, adults need play dates, too.

    Wonderful post, and great topic, Melanie:).

  7. March 16, 2011

    Wonderful post Melanie,
    I have a few friends like that where we feel at home with each other right away, even after years apart. I love Julia Cameron too – "The Artists Way" is a great program for writers and other creative souls.

  8. March 17, 2011

    Thanks for your kind words. That is great that you work/volunteer as a foster mother at an orphanage. I couldn't think of more important work to do in the world. L'Shalom. melanie

  9. March 17, 2011

    Irene, thanks for the reference>I will check out Julia Cameron. I have done research on expressive writing, so I'm intrigued.

  10. March 17, 2011

    Thanks so much for your positive comments re the importance of topic. much appreciated. have you seen the movie "Race to "Nowhere?" It is about older kids and competitive pressure but very powerful and relevant.

  11. March 25, 2011

    This is line spoke to me the most! "How many alcohol and drug problems, eating disorders, and depressive episodes could we prevent by allowing our children just to be and to play without judging, criticizing, controlling, overscheduling, pressuring, neglecting, or abusing them."

  12. March 25, 2011

    That line is the one I liked the most as well! I think you're tuning into the key point of the post. Parents don't realize that if you deny kids the freedom to express who they really are & be recognized for that & accepted, you can create lifelong psychological pain.

  13. September 6, 2011

    Thank you. So much of what we want in our lives is connected to the ability to play. Happiness doesn't just happen–we can learn a lot from children. Thanks! Diana Fletcher

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