Play engages both our minds and bodies

All of us have played before, though for some of us it may have been ages ago. The creativity and spontaneity of play releases an excitement and joy that allows us to rekindle the spark within us. Children play inside and outside, laughing, giggling, running around and jumping. But research shows that we are not playing as much as we used to, and that can be detrimental to our health.

The science of the role of play in healing is growing by leaps and bounds. Research has shown that play contributes to the physical, mental and social health of young people and adults. Play can help us develop normally and healthfully as children, improve and maintain our health, boost our immune system and improve our memory and cognitive function.

Play stimulates nerve growth in the portion of the brain that executes function and processes emotions. Play also improves our imagination and creativity, helping with and developing problem-solving skills. Play helps children learn how to be friends and cooperate and play fair. Research has shown that playful activity helps our emotional health, reducing depression, anxiety and stress.

Play is not just for children

Physical and mental play delays mental decline in older age. Regular exercise and playful exercise increases cognitive function, and doing crossword puzzles, brain teasers, and board games can improve cognitive function. Playing musical instruments and singing also improve mental focus, concentration, cognitive function and physical health.

Playing outdoors has a host of benefits. It increases fitness levels and improves distance vision. It raises vitamin D levels, helping prevent bone and heart diseases, diabetes and other health issues. Exposure to natural settings and green space can improve focus and decrease hyperactivity and stress. Students who attend schools that have environmental-based programs have improved critical thinking skills and do better on standardized tests in reading, writing, math and listening skills. Playing outdoors has also been shown to make us nicer, improve our social skills and improve our value for close relationships and community.

How do we play? We send our children outdoors. We arrange play dates. We play in the snow. We play sports. We go to the gym and play. We have game nights. We join a club or league that plays an activity. We do fun things. And, most important, we do them regularly and enjoy ourselves.

Les Moore holds a master’s of science in Oriental medicine and is a naturopath, medical hydrologist, and licensed acupuncturist. He is director, Integrative Medicine, at Clifton Springs Hospital, Ontario County.

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