Play your way to better health

When our 5-year old grandson visits us, he will initially be absorbed in his new coloring books or the colorful, tiny, metal cars he carries everywhere, but he will soon look up and ask, “Nana, do you want to play with me?”

I always answer, “Yes!”

No matter what household diversions try to distract me, I embrace the invitation and inevitably experience the laughter and interactive goodwill that comes from playing with a small child. My commitment to myself this summer: I will do more playing — grandchildren helpful, but not totally necessary.

I recently attended a two-hour presentation by humorist Leigh Anne Jasheway, author of “100 Comedy Games for Children and Grown-Ups.” She describes P.L.A.Y. as “physical, laughter-filled, active and youth-oriented.”

She demonstrated how easily older adults could enter a playful space by inviting a group of individuals from the audience to come to the front of the auditorium and “play” with her. The game involved imagining an object unlike anything you would expect in that setting and then parading past it, one by one, relating to it in some way. The group selected a toilet as their imaginary object. And every person, young and old, disabled and not — smiles on their faces — paraded by the imaginary toilet and gave it a different type of attention. There was the exaggerated flush, a handsome salute and a quite-vivid demonstration of exactly the purpose of toilets in the first place.

So, prompted by how much fun that group of adults was having, I started looking at existing research on play. I was reminded that healthy play is essential for a child’s brain development. But, as one researcher put it, “Adults need recess too.”

I found there is a National Institute for Play ( with a website filled with laughing people of all ages and ideas for making life more joy-filled. Play is described by these experts as “voluntary and pleasurable with a sense of engagement; it takes you out of time. And the act itself is more important than the outcome.”

Here’s a phrase to think about: “You can discern more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Plato said that. You remember Plato, don’t you? The man considered the most pivotal of all the Greek philosophers, student of Socrates, teacher of Aristotle. The man who founded the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the western world. That guy — Plato.

Have you noticed, our society has come to dismiss or look a little warily at play for adults? Other than competitive play, we seem to view play or playfulness as unproductive or even label it “guilty pleasure.” But as researchers writing in the “American Journal of Play” state, “play brings joy” and is vital to better problem-solving, increased creativity and even improves relationships as we age.

If you have not played in a while, where do you start? Use your imagination. Don’t be restrained. Make it active and laughter-filled. By the way, another quote from Plato, “the beginning is the most important part of the work.”

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus, Oregon State University, and the author of “How Gray in My Valley: Enlightened Observations About Being Old.” Reach her at

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