Want to live a healthier, more successful life? Play and sleep more!

Play is more than just fun. It’s essential to human functioning throughout the life span.

Have you ever noticed how often people respond with the word “busy” when you ask them how they’re doing? Many of us find ourselves feeling anxiety and stress because we have so much to do and we feel like there’s not enough time to do it all. We live in a culture that pressures us to be in a constant state of doing things – working, going to school, running errands and doing chores – and many adults as well as kids find themselves in structured activities from sun up to sun down. This dominant cultural value focused on being busy is reinforced by a steady stream of shame-based messages we hear throughout our lives. These messages connect our sense of self-worth to how much money we earn, what colleges we get into, what material things we acquire and other things external to us.

In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Brené Brown, Ph.D. draws from her research on shame and shares guideposts that contribute to living a healthier, more balanced and wholehearted life. One of those guideposts focuses on the importance of cultivating play and rest and “letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth.” Brown connects her research with the work of Stuart Brown, M.D. who stresses that play is an essential to our overall health and functioning, as nutrition and rest.

Stuart Brown is a psychiatrist, author, researcher and founder of the National Institute for Play. His research has found that humans are hardwired for play and that play throughout our lives is essential to our survival and success. For example, neuroscience shows how the brain lights up during play and this research illustrates how essential play behaviors are to overall brain development including cognitive abilities, memory and emotional regulation. Stuart Brown’s early research also connected the suppression or inhibiting of play to aggressive and violent behavior in adults.

Brown contends that the opposite of play is not work – it’s depression. He urges people to infuse more humor and play into their lives and into the lives of their children. Here are several elements or patterns of play that are essential to our overall physical, cognitive and emotional development:

Attunement play — Beginning in infancy, our brains are nurtured through eye contact, sweet cooing and smiles with our parents and caretakers. This kind of attunement play is essential to brain development and research shows that healthy, playful, connected relationships nurture and heal our brains throughout our lives.

Body play and movement — Play-driven movement lights up the brain and fosters learning. Body movement for the purpose of play – such as jumping, dancing and safe, rough and tumble play with children and pets – fosters innovation, adaptability, flexibility and resilience.

 Object play — Using our hands to play with things (such as toys, arts and crafts, skipping rocks) not only teaches important manipulative skills but also builds competencies in problem-solving and fosters overall brain development.

Social play — In childhood and throughout our lives, spending time with others in relaxed and playful ways fosters feelings of friendship, belonging, social awareness, connection, compassion, altruism and fairness.

The research and work of both Stuart Brown and Brené Brown tell us that being too busy, too exhausted and too over-scheduled takes a toll on people’s overall health and wellbeing. They both strongly encourage us to dismiss the messages that play as a “waste of time” and unproductive – and to infuse our lives with a variety of forms of play. Play in childhood – and at any age – makes us smarter, more joyful people and is basic for brain development and for our very survival.

Michigan State University Extension provides education and other resources focused on social and emotional learning, early childhood development and healthy relationships across the life span.