The power of play

Many adult women’s lives are empty of play—but research shows that play time has deep benefits for grown-ups.

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By Susan McCarthy

When Luz Maynes ’11 took the class History and Theories of Play to complete her BA in child development, she didn’t expect that assignments would include actual play. With blocks, for example. In class. “I was expecting a theory class with a lot of lectures—what I actually got was very different,” she says. The unorthodox curriculum was also crucially valuable, adds Maynes, who is now an adviser to childcare centers at the University of New Mexico. “It helped me see what young children are experiencing.”

Julie Nicholson

Julie Nicholson first taught this class on play six years ago and, at that time, the course focused solely on children’s play, which extensive research has shown to be tremendously important. “Play is children’s natural language for learning,” says Nicholson, a visiting assistant professor of education. She explains that children learn countless things through play, from the nature of the physical world to concepts such as fairness and risk. “Through play, children establish and maintain relationships and construct understandings of the world around them.”

Coursework is now augmented by seeing how play is expressed in adult lives, including those of students in the class, Nicholson says. “As we talk about children’s play, we work on creating connections between the women’s reflections on their own experiences to help them have greater understanding, empathy, and ultimately a deeper and more integrative understanding of their work in the profession of early childhood.”

Throughout the semester, students refine the definition of what play actually is by examining the widely varying activities that constitute “play” to different people—including themselves. Golf, for example, may be sheer bliss for one person, torment for another. Some people find joy in sports or board games. Others might dance, do crafts, or play computer games like World of Warcraft. Play can be full of robust physical activity or more sedate; it may be done as part of a group or in solitude. Students also learn that “leisure” isn’t necessarily play—watching TV seldom brings the feelings of joy, freedom, and ease that play brings—but truly rewarding play is characterized by a sense of spontaneity, internal motivation, and a sense of agency.

Priya Shimpi

The most notable finding, however, is how empty of play many grown women’s lives are—and how they delight in its rediscovery. “Oh, it was wonderful! I loved it,” says Thao Chung, MA ’12, who chose to swing on the trapeze when students were asked to try some new form of play. “It was amazing! It was more exciting every time I did it,” she says. Another student tried coloring: at first her dorm neighbors teased her, but by semester’s end they were joining her.

Not surprisingly, women report that making time to play brought them joy and elevated their moods. But there are deeper benefits of play: women also report that participating in playful activities lowered stress, helped them solve problems, and even allowed them to heal from trauma or loss.

But women, in particular, face social and psychological barriers when it comes to play, says Priya Shimpi, assistant professor of education. Many women don’t give themselves permission to play, often because they feel they are too busy or can’t afford their hobbies, or that such pursuits are too silly, embarrassing, or self-indulgent. In addition, women often place service to others, whether in their family or community, above service to their own needs.

It’s not necessarily the best idea to “put away childish things.” Play time is beneficial for grown women, too.

The benefits of play, however, are quite clear. “The class was very eye-opening,” says Robin Hepworth, MA ’12, who plans to work as a child life specialist in hospitals. “As master’s students, we’re all really stressed. But when you actually find time to play, it helps you focus on the other stuff when you come back. That was something I didn’t really expect to happen.”

When Nicholson encouraged students to analyze the history of play in their own lives, she saw what they’d lost. “Play was being taken away from them. In my teaching, I saw a parallel between what was happening in children’s lives, and what I was hearing about adults’ lives,” she says. “Many adults talk about losing play in middle childhood. And when they lost play, a part of their identity was lost.”

Shannon Fisherkeller

“If you don’t play when you’re growing up, it hurts you in so many ways,” says Lilly Sahagun ’10, who notes that play was disapproved of in her childhood home. Now working towards her master’s in early childhood education, Sahagun took Nicholson’s class and recognizes the necessary function of play for both children and adults. “If you can’t release your feelings, you grow up holding on to all those stresses,” she says. She has found bringing play into her adult life extremely valuable and sets aside time to play with her young grandchildren or “go to a coffee shop or farmer’s market or go look at books.”

The class uses students’ rediscovery of play as a teaching tool; Nicholson and Shimpi believe that a personal experience of play is a prerequisite for effectively advocating for children’s play. Students who complete a degree in early childhood education go on to work in settings from preschools or childcare facilities to hospitals. “Many of our graduates are entering environments where play is increasingly misunderstood. It is essential that they gain the skills to speak articulately about the value of play with a range of stakeholders who may not understand play or may outright denigrate it,” says Nicholson.

“There is a fear that play takes away from learning,” adds Shimpi. “Our graduates may face resistance at all levels: by communities, schools, and parents.” Some youngsters are so over-scheduled with activities like ballet, violin, and soccer that little time is left for simple play. The pressures of school and homework can have the same effect.

Like many of her students, Shimpi asserts that play has even changed her own life. She has recently learned how to hula-hoop—“It’s made all the difference in how I feel!”