Play: It's Healing Power

Adults should play, too? Who has time for this? Why should I prioritize play? Isn’t play just important for kids? What does it even mean to play as an adult?


What is play?

Play is a “state of being”, it is a focus on the process and the experience - not the outcome. 

It is permission to enjoy without purpose, to have fun, to find pleasure.

Why is play important when life is hard?

We are who we are. Play cultivates safety to experience and explore identity. This is especially true when one has experienced difficulty in life - playing gently invites one to make sense of their reality in the midst of challenges or pain.

This world is often incredibly difficult to live in. Pain and brokenness threaten to shatter and break our sense of self. In response to pain, a common response is to avoid aspects of ourselves, diminish or deny uncomfortable internal experiences and suppress overwhelming emotions.We may cope in ways that are inconsistent with who we are, resulting in self-expression that is not a reflection of our truest self. When under stress and when in survival mode, individuals tend to lose our sense of identity and well-being.

A woman who struggles with depression may find it difficult to access her joyful, curious and adventurous parts. Whether expressed or not, this woman is still adventurous, joyful and curious, even when these parts of her are paralyzed by brokenness. Similarity, a child who has experienced trauma may no longer feel safe to hug a caregiver and trust a peer on the playground. These choices reflect internal pain but do not diminish or change the child’s core identity as a created being capable and desirous of love and human connection.

Play is healing as it encourages one to lean into a fuller expression of their personality and being, creating freedom for authenticity and belonging. Healing involves taking risks and playing intices risk with the softness of safety, enjoyment and fun.

In play, we let go… and find freedom to be curious, to take risks, and discover

In play we let go. Play encourages us to let go of expectations and “shoulds.” Children create imaginary worlds. They dress up and dream what it may be like to embody a person, a career, a character in a story. A child is able to consider different realities, ask questions and explore who they are without pressure of reality.

Playing is a journey of exploration and it is in the exploration that a sense of self is confirmed, denied and challenged.

One may take the risk of skiing down a difficult slope, asking themselves, “can I do this?”, challenging and testing their abilities. One may explore a new recipe, playing with different flavors, testing and exploring their sense of creativity and innovation. One may read a novel and confront themes of humanity, encouraging space to better understand their story in light of another's, shedding light on their understanding of themselves.

Play fuels the spirit of curiosity and risk that stimulates growth. In play, an abused child escapes from reality and acts out being a superhero, processing what it might be like to experience strength despite pain. Amy Cuddy offers research: playing and posing body postures can impact feelings, and our feelings influence our behaviors. Playful activities can draw out characteristics in us we might otherwise not exhibit. A fearful, overwhelmed adult may explore a brave version of themselves by finishing a hike they never thought was possible to accomplish. A child or adult experiments with their sense of self, their limits, thier boundaries, their capabilities and their points of creativity in play, providing experiences that can be translated to one’s daily life.

Play is about the process, not the outcome. Play invites us to embody this mindset.

Play is inherently satisfying in and of itself, teaching us to appreciate the process versus outcome. Life is a process and play engages us mindfully in the process of life, letting go of uncontrollable outcomes. Consider a time when you played hard, and counted the experience worthwhile, even if it ended in failed expectations. In play, there is freedom to explore, to fail, to get up again and hope.

Play draws us together.

In play, we learn who we are, and we discover who we can become, in the context of community. In play we discover belonging, and in community, we reach a unique understanding of ourselves. We observe how we relate to others, we ask why we respond in a certain way and how this is based on our values. We refine what is important to us. In play, a safety is often established, walls are let down, and vulnerability allows for connection.

Perhaps you went to summer camp as a child. Remember the silly games and messy activities. Did you feel a sense of connectedness with your friends?

How do you play as an adult in your community? What events, activities and adventures draw you into deeper community with others? Playing creates rituals and traditions in communities, anchoring and connecting humanity.

How do you play?

How do you play when under stress? How do you “dance in the rain?” How do you find joy and contentment in painful, uncomfortable circumstances? How do you re-connect with the full expression of yourself after experiencing devastating disappointments and daily disappointment? How do you live with the playful hope of young child after experiencing the reality of life?

Play looks different for everyone. What does play look like for you? How does it restore you? Play requires intentionality. What prevents you from playing? How could you problem solve to remove barriers distancing you from playful routines?

I invite you to journal for a few minutes and reflect on your relationship with play and share ideas/comments with us to encourage others in the spirit of play! Do you feel stuck and paralyzed in your ability to play and creatively express yourself? Comment below!


Thanks for reading!

Victoria Barrett, M.A., LMHC