When was the last time that you played? Today? Last week? Years ago, and it’s something you’ve “outgrown?” It’s easy to associate “play” with something that kids do. Yet “play” is something we need regardless of how old you are. Play is beneficial.
“Why?,” you ask. There are several reasons why “play” is beneficial. I’ll go into them more in this blog post. With this, I’ll talk about what “play” is and illustrate what playing can look like throughout the lifespan. I’ll also highlight some ways that play is beneficial in therapy.
What Play Is
You might think that “play” is easy to define, but the word “play” has a few different definitions. It is a verb, a noun, and a state of mind. For example, as a verb, you can play a game or play an instrument. As a noun, “play” can also describe an activity that a person does, such as “children at play.”
As a state of mind, musician, author, and educator Stephan Nachmanovitch describes “play” as being “always a matter of context. It is not what we do, but how we do it… When the most challenging labors are undertaken from the joyous work spirit, they are play.” (p. 43) Viewing “play” in this way, I believe, highlights why being able to cultivate a sense of “play” is valuable for people to do at any age.
Five Characteristics of Human Play
Now let’s look at what makes “play” “play.” It is generally agreed among scholars that human “play” has five characteristics.  The five characteristics that define “play” among humans are that “play” is:
- “Self-chosen and self-directed”
- Intrinsically motivating, and the means are more valued than the ends
- “Guided by mental rules, but the rules leave room for creativity”
- “Conducted in an alert, but relatively non-stressed frame of mind.” 
Ways That People Play
So looking at these characteristics and definitions of “play,” your mental wheels may be turning as to the many ways that people can “play.” As I mentioned earlier, “play” can involve playing a game or playing an instrument. Stephan Nachmanovich takes the idea of “play” further when he identifies that “improvisation, composition, writing, painting, theater, invention, all creative acts” (1990, p. 42) fall under the definition of “play.”
However, looking at “play” as a state of being in which “the most challenging labors are” being undertaken “from the joyous work spirit,” then it is possible to see how play could entail more mundane tasks. For example, you could consider cleaning, doing one’s job, or yard work to be “play” if done in a playful state of mind. In other words, “adulting” could be done playfully.
Ways That Play is Beneficial
You might be wondering, “Why is ‘play’ beneficial? I mean, I get that it’s fun, and I wish I had more time for it, but besides that, how could ‘play’ help me?” As it turns out, “play” is incredibly beneficial for humans. According to Stephan Nachmanovich, “Without play, learning and evolution are impossible.” (1990, p. 42).
Through play, a person can develop new skills and expertise. We can learn how things work through play. A playful approach to a task can also help keep us engaged and motivated or support us in achieving a flow state.
Evolutionarily speaking, “play” helps keep us flexible in our thinking and approach towards the world and others. That is because “play” can help us to develop fresh, new “ways of relating with people, animals, things, ideas, images, ourselves.” (Nachmanovich, 1990, p. 43). We can benefit from developing new ways of relating to the world around us at any age. Below are explanations as to how play is beneficial throughout the lifespan.
How Play is Beneficial to Kids
For kids, play is a way for them to learn and take in new information. Kids can use play to process their feelings and experiences.
How Play is Beneficial to Teens
Teens are still learning about the world and themselves. But because teens are going through hormonal changes and significant brain development, teens may experience increased anxiety or stress. Play can help teens to self-regulate and manage their feelings of stress.
How Play is Beneficial to Adults
Going back to the idea of “play” as a state of mind, taking a playful attitude towards one’s responsibilities as an adult can make “adulting” more manageable. Just like with teens, play as an adult can help with self-regulation and managing feelings of stress.
How Play is Beneficial to Older Adults
Aging can be associated with losses as older adults may become unable to do certain things for themselves that they want to do. Yet, it can also be a time where people can become more of their authentic selves. Older adults don’t have the same societal constraints placed upon them. Not having these constraints can lead to a sense of “emancipated innocence” where older adults can be more playful and liberated. This term comes from a theory of aging I find inspiring, called Gerotranscendence. 
Why Play Is Beneficial to Therapy
By now, you may be getting some ideas as to why play would be beneficial to therapy. Below are the four main reasons why I incorporate play in my work as a therapist through the medium of music.
As a music therapist and counselor, I strongly believe in the therapeutic power of creativity. Creativity is an aspect of play, and I think, a valuable part of being human. When incorporating creativity into therapy, a person can enter into an experience of flow. Being creative without focusing on a final product can be a powerful way to understand oneself and learn how to be with oneself.
In this blog post, I talk a bit more about the benefits of tapping into your creativity and offer tips for accessing your creativity.
Part of therapy involves exploration. To create change in our lives, we need to be curious about what’s going on. Play can help you to explore what’s going on from a non-judgemental place. Engaging in musical play can help you to explore your thoughts and feelings about yourself and your situation.
Reflection is also a part of therapy. We need to be able to reflect on what’s going on within ourselves and in our life. Doing so can lead us to recognize places where we can take responsibility for our actions and behaviors. Reflection can also lead to identifying ways in which the actions or behaviors of others have affected us. We can then hold them accountable for their behaviors and actions.
Music therapy can support reflection through active music-making or by mindfully listening to music.
People often come to therapy because they have something they want to change. Engaging in play helps develop new insights through exploration and reflection that can lead to solutions to the problems one wants to solve.
Are You Looking For a Playful Approach to Therapy?
I hope that you can see that regardless of your age, “play” is beneficial. Your mental health and well-being will thank you if you engage in more play in your life. If you’re looking for a therapist and you’d like to incorporate creativity and play into therapy, contact me. I offer a free 15-minute consultation call that you can schedule here.
Also, for older adults in Longmont looking for an opportunity to “play” with others while improving their sense of well-being, I’m offering a “Singing for Wellness” group through the Longmont Senior Center. More information can be found in their summer edition of GO Catalog.
References Nachmanovitch, S. (1990). Free play: Improvisation in life and art. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnum.
 Definitions of Play – Scholarpedia
 Halverson-Ramos, F. (2019). Music and gerotranscendence: A culturally responsive approach to ageing. Approaches: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Music Therapy, 11(1), 166-179.