Play for Adults

Making Play Part of Adult Life

Adult play isn’t always obvious. Adults don’t reach a play state as easily as little kids do.

And sometimes what adults think of as play is anything but. Playing a sport may or may not be playful, depending on your attitude while playing.

Something that looks like a difficult task — writing a book or working on a complex jigsaw puzzle — might be play. If the person doing it is engaged and feeling content with the challenge, then it is play; if the person is feeling bored, irritated, or burdened by the task then it is not play.

Your play circuits are unique — a combination of the wiring you were born with and the neural pathways that developed in your brain during your childhood.

Even if it’s been years since you were in a play state, you can get back to that joy. It only takes a little self-awareness and the willingness to “just do it.”

The characteristics of play all have to do with motivation and mental attitude, not with the ... behavior. Two people might be throwing a ball … or typing words on a computer, and one might be playing while the other is not. To tell which one is playing and which one is not, you have to infer from their expressions and the details of their actions … why they are doing [it] and their attitude toward it.

Peter Gray, Free to Learn
An older couple laughing as they to the next hole with their golf clubs.
Golf is play for these two.
A man angrily swings his club at the rough along a golf course.
Golf is not play for this guy.

How to Build Your Adult Play Muscles

Sadly, too many of us have been trained from childhood to believe that play is “kid’s stuff” — not a productive use of time, something we leave behind when we join the work world. 

Over the last 30 years, science has shown that play is very productive for humans at any age; we need play to keep our brains flexible, ward off depression, sustain optimism, and sharpen our social-emotional skills. 

Here’s a simple three-step plan for rekindling the joy of play in your life.

Step 1: Find your play personality.

Are you a collector or a director? A storyteller? A kinesthete? Our founder, Dr. Stuart Brown, has identified eight play personalities. Most of us are a blend of several, but one is usually dominant.

If you’re stumped, think back to the things you enjoyed most as a child. What made you feel free? What did you become so absorbed in that you lost track of time? Those activities are a good clue to the kinds of activities that will be playful for you today.

A smiling woman sitting next to a mountain trail with her bike, enjoying the view.

Step 2: Consider how you like to play.

Humans have different ways of playing, from body and movement play to social play. The different types of play can fit with any play personality. For example, one person with a storyteller play personality may most enjoy social play, another may prefer movement play, and yet another object play. All these people will access play states through different activities.

Again, if you don’t feel moved by any of the types of play, try to remember what made you happiest as a child. That will give you hints about what you will enjoy today.

An older man deeply engaged in playing a drum set in his garage.

Step 3: Try something that sounds fun.

Look for chances to play in ways that fit with the play personality or the play types that felt right to you. See how you feel. Remember, this is about being playful; if you are enjoying yourself, you’ve got it! If you’re not having fun, try something else.

Don’t worry about whether your play makes sense to someone else, or whether you are “any good” at it. Just enjoy the play state. As long as you aren’t hurting someone, there’s no wrong way to play.

Two women greeting each other with hugs and joyful smiles.
For some people, just getting together with friends is enough to create a play state. Photo credit: Ridofranz.

You don’t need to justify anything that feels playful to you — your play is specific to you. Your play state may come from something active, like hiking, or something creative, like painting, or something social, like meeting a friend, or even something solitary, like reading a book. There are many types of play!

Sometimes you may choose to join an activity with friends or family because they enjoy it, even if you don’t. That’s wonderful and generous of you, and a great way to build and maintain relationships, but remember to make time for the play that energizes you, too.

Once you find an activity that engages you and makes you feel free and joyful, look for ways to do that regularly.

Tips for Parent-Child Play

Playing with your child can be good for you too. Achieving a play state together strengthens your bond and builds great memories. Some tips:

  • Let your child play alone unless invited to join. Don’t butt in.
  • If you are invited, let your child set the direction and pace of play.
  • Listen to what they are saying and accept it. Build on it with “yes, and” instead of “no, but.”
  • Respond with age-appropriate actions and encouragement.
  • Get lost in the fun. You don’t have to look for teachable moments.
A father wearing a tiara and scrunching his face as his laughing daughter pretends to do his make-up.

A lone biker pedals up a long, winding mountain trail.

Finding Play in a New Approach to a Favorite Activity

“Cycling, like everything else, has gotten harder as I’ve grown older. For much of the year, I live on a dirt road at the bottom of a mile-long hill, and some days I just don’t have the energy to make the ascent. Last summer, I was on my bike a total of five times.

“Since I got the e-bike, though, I’ve been riding 15 and 20 miles a day, four or five days a week. It’s been life-altering, not just making me fitter, but also raising my spirits.

— Jennifer F. Boylan, “How an E-Bike Changed My Life.” (New York Times, August 20, 2019; emphasis added.)