Fog hangs like a thick quilt over the morning. You anticipate that you’ll return from your walk damp and cold. You almost don’t go, but then you decide not to allow the habitual rhythm of your day to collapse. When you are only ten minutes from home and a cup of steaming hot chocolate with mini-marshmallows, you round the park comes into view. Its playground is shrouded in mist. Swings sway with each fresh gust of dampness. It is as if the swings are beckoning: “Come play!” Usually, remembering the sting of that wooden swing connecting with your three-year old face, your lost teeth, all that blood, you avoid swings. But this morning, you brush the ghosts aside, grab hold of the cold metal chains and lower yourself onto the seat. As your feet spear the fog and the ground falls away, a burst of joy explodes and spreads a smile across your face.

In the February/March 2009 edition of Scientific American Mind, “The Serious Need for Play” discusses the latest research on the benefits of play. While many parents and educators might be familiar with the recommendation that, “childhood play is crucial for social, emotional and cognitive development,” the quantitative examples cited in this article of play’s benefits to language development, stress relief, and building of social skills are eye opening.

For example, according to a 2008 Gettysburg College study, rats in a chamber who had been exposed to a collar previously worn by a cat were visibly anxious when they entered the chamber, even when the collar had been removed and the chamber had been cleaned. When rats who hadn’t been exposed to the collar entered the chamber, they immediately engaged the anxious rats in playful chases, tumbling and pretend fighting, and the anxious rats visibly relaxed demonstrating how play can calm us and the beneficial impact of playful mates.

Research suggests that even adults can benefit from play. Marc Bekoff, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, suggests that play rejuvenates unhappy and exhausted adults. Stuart Brown, psychiatrist and founder of the National Institute for Play, recommends that adults engage in goal-free active movement, use their hands to create something they enjoy, and join other people in seemingly purposeless social activities. Endorphins flood the brain increasing pleasure and satisfaction.

There’s a moment where you imagine how others might see you – an adult smiling and swinging away. Silly? Crazy? No matter. You feel charged and happy. Your mood pushes back against the day’s grayness and the old pain-filled memories. You’ve answered the call to play and it’s delivered an emotional satisfaction you never anticipated, relaxing you, calming you, filling you with joy. Life just got a little bit better…

Anabel Jensen

President of Six Seconds and professor of education, Anabel Jensen, Ph.D., is a master teacher and a pioneer in emotional intelligence education. A two-time Federal Blue Ribbon winner for excellence in education, she was Executive Director of the Nueva School from 1983 to 1997 where she helped develop the Self-Science curriculum featured in Daniel Goleman’s 1995 bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence.

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