Man catching a frisbee

Permission to Play

We’re past the days of recess, but we still need play. Rediscover your inner kid (and all kinds of benefits!) with these refreshing strategies for stressed-out grown-ups.

“Go out and play!” 

If you have kids, that’s probably something you say to them almost every day, but maybe you should be saying it to yourself. Play isn’t just a casual way to divert your brain from the daily grind; we have a deep-rooted drive to do it, even as adults, and many experts believe it’s absolutely necessary for a healthy, happy life. 

In their book Play, Stuart Brown, MD, and Christopher Vaughan, explain the importance of this unstructured, non-goal-oriented downtime: “It energizes us and enlivens us. It eases our burdens. It renews our natural sense of optimism and opens us up to new possibilities.” And that can translate to stress relief, more creativity, and better relationships. 

So why are so many people play deprived? Work and family obligations naturally take top priority, but we have another disadvantage. “Our big brains get in the way,” says Marc Bekoff, PhD, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado. “Animals at play will bite, chase, and swat each other but without any intent to dominate or hurt each other. Humans tend to look at the underlying motivations and how they impact us.” 

In other words, we’re always looking for the angle: Will this help me lose weight or get a raise? But true play is done for the joy of the activity itself. 

If you need help inserting more play into your day, try these tips from people who’ve managed to make fun and games a regular part of their lives. 

Do it at the office

Even work offers opportunities to flex your play muscles, says Michael R. Mantell, PhD, a San Diego–based behavioral sciences coach and psychologist who loves his job so much he considers it play. “The smartest companies are those where the employees are throwing Frisbees around at lunchtime because playing fosters innovation and creativity.”

Schedule fun

While some experts say play should be spontaneous, that doesn’t always work in our adult lives. “Fitting an hour, half hour, even 15 minutes into your day to just do something that resonates with your inner child can change your outlook,” says surfing instructor Izzy Tihanyi, who gets to play with clients as co-owner and founder of Surf Diva in La Jolla, California. 

Emulate your kids

They’re the real experts! Get out and play with your kids or grandkids, suggests Mantell. Go biking, play hide-and-seek, or catch fireflies. “If you’re not fit enough to run around with them, start a fitness program with that goal in mind,” he says.

Grease the wheels

“Always have your play equipment—running shoes, bathing suit, Frisbee, yoga mat—in the car or by the front door so it’s accessible when you get a chance to escape,” says Tihanyi. 

Let down your guard

“I plan a lot of trips with my girlfriends to go play,” says Darlene Fiske, owner of a public relations firm in Austin, Texas. “They’re way better than any therapy session I could pay for. But day to day, I think play is about being open to trying new activities, being silly, and not caring what anyone else thinks.”