When was the last time you played? For some of us, the answer may go as far back as our childhoods. As children, we innately know how to play and enter imaginative worlds. Naturally curious, inquisitive, and creative, children use play to learn about and make sense of the extraordinary and mystifying world around them. At some point, we trade play for the pursuit of straight As and the next promotion. We forget the importance of playfulness in our productive, goal-driven culture.
Play is a vital asset for our wellbeing that is often overlooked. We can dismiss play as a ‘waste of time’ or engage in leisure only after our work is done (is it ever really done?). But for adults, especially those healing from disordered eating, play is an invaluable tool for reconnecting to ourselves, reducing stress, and unlocking joy. Recreation therapists are professionals who see these benefits firsthand!
While there is no right or wrong way to play, it is important to keep in mind two key components: Play is fun, and play is [seemingly] purposeless. This means that you are not engaged for the sole purpose of winning or praise or income. While we may have goals, the sole purpose of engaging in this activity does not rely exclusively on your ambitions. For you it may look like replicating a cake you saw on The Great British Bake Off, even if the end result is more appropriate for the next season of Nailed It.
Play looks different for everyone. Perhaps it’s a creative endeavor with paint or clay or wood. Or maybe it’s writing a short story or attempting a jigsaw puzzle. Some people may participate in an improv class or join the local theater. I personally love to dance freely in my living room (with or without music- I am not particular) and wander aimlessly through nature while taking a few photos along the way.
Playful activities offer adults a unique opportunity to reconnect with their bodies. Eating disorders as well as trauma, shame, and self-criticism disconnect us from our bodies over time. By engaging in joyful movement, we can start to rebuild positive connections through physical sensations, joyous emotions, and self-expression. Using our bodies to have fun fosters a sense of appreciation for what our bodies can do. Whether it’s jumping on a trampoline or painting with watercolors, our bodies are capable of so much!
Play also reduces stress. Managing the stress of adulthood, especially when recovering from an eating disorder, is a seemingly impossible and overwhelming task. Taking time to play allows us to balance the stress of recovery, work, and school with activities that promote rest, socialization, and self-care. Having fun also increases dopamine, the pleasure hormone, and honestly, we can all use a little more of that!
Most importantly, in my opinion, playfulness in adulthood allows us to rediscover ourselves. When eating disorders and the fast-paced nature of society force us into a rigid and controlling lifestyle, we lose our sense of self. Is it difficult to identify things that bring you genuine joy but easy to explain the latest software your company adopted? Sounds like you need more play! Reengaging with previously-loved activities such as jumping in a leaf pile, swimming in the ocean, and creating friendship bracelets can reignite a sense of purpose and joy. Play helps individuals reconnect with their core values, passions, and interests. It allows us to remember who we are before we were overwhelmed with responsibilities and taken over by eating disorder thoughts. Over time, engagement in playful activities can improve our self-identity and overall satisfaction with life.
If you recognize a lack of playfulness in your life, consider your interests. Is there something you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t had the chance? Maybe it’s time to finally take that music lesson! Is there something you used to do as a child that you’d like to reconnect with? If you loved climbing the jungle gym, perhaps you can try rock climbing. Do you have kids, a niece or nephew, or perhaps a neighbor you babysit? Playing with the kids in your life may spark some inspiration. After all, they are true experts in play.
Whether it’s dancing in the kitchen while cooking, belting out a song on your drive home, or making light of an embarrassing moment you had at work, find a way to incorporate playfulness into your day and notice how it feels. Reconnect with the lighthearted joyfulness of childhood. Adults benefit from it too!
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