How Being Playful

Can Help Us Build Resilience

Resilience, or the ability to manage stress and adversity, and the capacity of keeping our equanimity in the face of challenges, is a quality we all aspire to enjoy and possess, because it is inevitable that life will produce stress-inducing demands and unexpected difficult elements.

Rarely, if ever, is play considered a prerequisite or even a component of the ingredients we usually associate with resilience, or is it generally appreciated in its contributions for how we manage stress, or how we face and master adversity. During the stresses of the past two years, perhaps we began to think differently.

In our long transition over the ages, well documented by paleo-anthropologists, from nomadic hunter-gatherers to our world-wide primate human status now, surrounded as we are with technologic marvels and urban lifestyles; nonetheless, we can now place play in deep context, and see it as it is, an ingrained part of all of us, and a necessity for overall human competency. Play has survived for good reasons. Add to this valid historic perspective the comparison of our brain design to those of our playful animal cousins, and fresh insights and increased appreciation for play emerges. We are just now beginning to appreciate its importance.

As research psychologist Steve Siviy has written in Vol. #2 of the American Journal of Play:


The objective studies that animal play in controlled settings has produced, (as it would not be ethical to conduct such research on humans) show that play-deprived animals cannot cope with the normal demands of belonging to a species-specific social group, nor do they handle stress adequately. On the other hand, play-filled animals deal with stress much better, show rapid recovery from stressful encounters, and demonstrate superior coping when presented with unexpected challenges. It is my view that human play, though we cannot objectify it through controlled studies, has parallel contributions to those seen in animal play research. The use of this information as it becomes more complete will provide data to bring about broad policy changes that appreciate and implement play.

This animal play research makes it clear that play, in its many manifestations, serves a wide variety of survival-promotion functions pertaining to-stress management, overall competency, learning, emotional regulation, innovation, and social cooperation. This understanding of the nature and importance of play is especially vital in today’s world, because of the ever-increasing restrictions our culture places on children’s play. Though not emphasized here, the need for adult and senior play, play throughout our lifetimes, also remains profoundly important.   So it seems important for us to know…does play by itself have the potential for easing stress? 

An early study that looked at preschool children found that those children distressed on the first day of school who were allowed to play became less anxious afterwards than distressed children to whom someone simply read a story. Interestingly, this lessening of distress became apparent only in those children who displayed high levels of baseline anxiety to begin with, and it was most evident in children who were allowed to play alone. In general, the evidence suggests that free play reduces anxiety and lessens stress in children. Consider, for example, play studied in children being treated for leukemia compared to the control group of the same age in a day-care center. While those with leukemia played less overall than the control group, an interesting pattern emerged among them. As anxiety levels increased in the kids with leukemia and they felt more stressed, they engaged more frequently in solitary play than parallel or group play, and their play became more repetitive.

Stress and play are clearly not compatible, with fear and stress suppressing play. Yet, stress occurs frequently in the lives of all of us, children and adults. Play can encourage a more rapid long-term ability to sustain resiliency, manage stress, increase overall competency, and recover from adversity. 

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