Longevity Articles

The Importance of Play

The Importance of Play

In books, magazine articles, podcasts, and TED talks, we hear how important it is to make time for play in our lives. Play has been examined in psychology textbooks, academic theses, and on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. Research shows that taking time out for play increases creativity, lifts mood, promotes happiness, and even improves memory. Studies prove that play is just as important a biological function for us as sleep, and that adults often lose the ability to play that they had as children.

I have a lot of trouble making time in my life for this kind of rejuvenating play and relaxation. I know that sounds odd coming from someone with a chronic illness who needs to rest so much, but my illness has actually made it even harder for me to set aside precious energy for just having fun. Because I need to spend so much time sleeping and resting (which is not the same as relaxing), I feel guilty if I use my limited energy for something that feels as frivolous as play. My play time has also shrunk as my sons have grown up. But play is so important in every life, to recharge and relax and focus on you. Which of us struggling with chronic illness couldn’t use a little mood lift and boost to our cognitive function?

Perhaps you share my struggles of filling my few available hours only with productive activities. Or perhaps you have trouble with play for other reasons. After all, when you live with chronic illness, many of the ways that you used to play are no longer an option. I can’t dance or go backpacking or play soccer with my kids or even go out drinking with my friends. I can’t even stay up past 10 pm!

So, if you, like me, need more play in your life, here are some tips and ideas, both from the play experts and from others like us, living with chronic illness:

Consider your play history. One of the play experts suggests this, and it seems like a brilliant idea. Think back to your childhood, to times when you experienced effortless joy. How did you play back then? What kinds of things did you do that were just plain fun? My best friend and I were board game fanatics! We never cared who won or lost – we just loved playing. I also have many happy childhood memories of time spent outdoors – playing with friends, making forts in the backyard, and exploring nearby “wilderness” (in the suburbs!). On my own, I loved to read and could easily lose myself in books for hours or days at a time, in my living room or my backyard. All of these things (except perhaps physical outdoor games) are great ways for me to play as an adult, too, and adaptable to my current limits. I may not be able to hike for hours anymore, but just spending time lying on my back deck and looking up at the sky and trees rejuvenates me and brings a sense of peace.

Incorporate different kinds of play. The experts point out that there are different ways to play – physical play, creative play, imaginative play, social play, and more. Some types of play may no longer be an option – like playing sports – but there are plenty of other avenues still open to us. Others with chronic illness tell me they play by reading, playing video games (alone or online with others), watching TV or movies (no multi-tasking allowed!), or even just sitting outdoors and paying attention to the birds, wildlife, and clouds.

Set aside electronic devices sometimes. Although the internet is extremely important to those of us who are unable to leave the house much – and there are some kinds of play you can enjoy electronically – it is also important to set the devices aside and unplug. I spend way too much time online. Besides your brain needing a break to enjoy unplugged play, too much time online can also add to our exhaustion and wear us out more. So, read a book or listen to music or go outdoors.

Give yourself credit. I’ve written a couple of blog posts on this topic, with dozens of wonderful comments from others who can relate. Sharing with me how they play made me realize that I have built periods of downtime and play into my life, but I don’t always “count” those because they are a part of my routine. I set my laptop aside at 7:30 every evening and watch two TV shows with my husband. No work, no to-do’s, no worries about being productive – that is our time together, when we catch up on the shows that we love to watch together. At 9:30, we head up to bed and then read for an hour, side by side. I also read for 20 minutes or so before my nap every afternoon. All of that is relaxing play time for me – I just need to recognize it as such and stop putting extra pressure on myself.

Try something new. Incorporating a new type of play into your life can lift your spirits, invigorate you, and form new neural pathways…not to mention possibly finding a new source of joy in your life. Here are some ideas from others living with chronic illnesses like ours:

  • Knitting or crocheting
  • Stargazing, watching birds through a window, or watching the ocean
  • Going for a ride in the country (perhaps with the help of a loved one)
  • Light gardening or caring for chickens
  • Painting – watercolors or even finger-painting!
  • Listening to music, perhaps a favorite album from your youth
  • Crafting – collages, pressing flowers, creating small items
  • Camping (a favorite of mine, too)
  • Cooking or baking, when able
  • Listening to audiobooks – try middle-grade or young adult, if you have trouble focusing
  • Board games or card games with friends or family members at home
  • Riding horses
  • Jigsaw puzzles – old style or online
  • Making cards, jewelry or other handcrafted items (bonus: you can sell them online)
  • Watching old movies or indie films

Wow, what a list! I am inspired by all these creative people in the same situation as me with so many great play ideas. I definitely want to play games more because that childhood passion is still with me (I need to find some game buddies now that my sons are grown). I would love to add something creative to my life, like drawing or painting. And I had forgotten about jigsaw puzzles – my husband and I enjoy those. I just need to set my laptop down once in a while!

How do you play? What new forms of play do you want to try? Set down whatever device you are reading this on and go play!

Suzan Jackson, a frequent ProHealth contributor, is a freelance writer who has had ME/CFS for two decades. Both of her sons also got ME/CFS, but one fully recovered after 10 years of illness while the other still lives with ME/CFS plus three tick-borne infections. She writes two blogs: Living with ME/CFS at http://livewithcfs.blogspot.com and Book By Book at http://bookbybook.blogspot.com.


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