It’s a strangely springlike day in Albuquerque. Exactly one year ago, I was cancelling a gathering due to the snow! Today, we have warm sunshine and the vivid skies that call the Burqueños out to play.
“Play!” I hear it daily, as my toddler coaxes me out the backyard or to help him connect the choo-choo trains on the track. I am reminded of it daily from the nearby elementary school’s bell. For those of you that lack wiley toddlers or nearby elementary school bells interruptions, what do you do that reminds you to play? When was the last time you played physically and spontaneously? Sometimes we have strong memories of competitive sports or gym class: being picked first or last for a game or being the fastest or slowest around the track, but I’m focused on something different. When was the last time that you were physically active, present, and spontaneous, just for the pleasure of the experience? When was the last time you were swinging at the park, feeling the wind move the hair on your scalp, the shift in weight from your legs pumping your body skyward, and your eyes focused on the endless blue above? When was the last time you connected with others in spontaneous physical movement? For adults, sex is an obvious answer, but we’ve commonly cut other means of play from our lives in pursuit of being adult like and dedicated to work. When was the last time you played on a teeter totter, played for-fun kickball, played catch, or went skating with friends? When was the last time you looked into another’s eyes in connection at the shared experience of the physical activity?
What does this have to do with mental health? Quite a bit. Humans are incredibly social, emotive, and physical beings. Playing feeds us on a very basic, profoundly deep level. Some research suggests that group play enhances our skills to get along with each other, building our emotional resources to connect with and care for each other well. Learning and obeying a game’s cues on when to start and stop helps humans practice and build skills towards controlling our actions and emotions. The mere act of being physically playful can help improve mood and alleviate daily stress physiologically, but the mood improvement can also be enhanced by our connection to others through shared play experience. Play may also be useful alongside mental health treatment to help humans cope despite trauma, as it can build skills, build health, and promote a neurological association between the experience of joy and body awareness.
So you’re on board that play is a pretty darn good thing to have in your stress-reduction toolbox, but how do you get started? Make it a priority and maybe have a friend or two tag along. School children already had their friends collected in one place, but we adults are more spread out over our various jobs and professions, so we have to make efforts if social play is going to happen. Take a yoga class, and extra credit if you chat afterwards about the class. Text your friends to get a group to go bowling. Take your kid to a park, and talk to other families while you’re there or simply enjoy the mindful experience of being with your child during play. Make regular play sessions part of your calendar that you synch to your phone reminders. Whatever you do, get out there. Your human nature is calling.