“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
-George Bernard Shaw
Growing older is an interesting journey. You’re wiser, more experienced, more mature, and you grow in many different ways. Hopefully, you’ve taken the best possible care of yourself, keeping active in body and mind, preserving your sense of humor, your child-like spontaneity, and youthful fun-seeking. However, you can never enough play or playfulness. This article explores playfulness in older adults, and what it means to be “playful”. We’ll delve into the many benefits of playing, as well as show you some ways to enjoy being playful. Regardless of age, socio-economic status, race, color and creed, no one is too old to play and be playful. Being playful is generally accepted as a healthy way to stay in touch with your inner child and being in touch helps you to stay positive and young in spirit.
By one definition, “play” is to engage in an activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.  Playfulness is defined as “the quality of being light-hearted or full of fun. 
Even though you may have aged, and you’ve left the proverbial sandbox playing of decades ago, there is still an internal, ageless feeling of vitality and aliveness felt when one laughs with peers, often has a good time with friends, and seeks activities that keep life enjoyment going.
A play is a universal language, like music. Sometimes words are not even necessary to communicate and understand each other when playing together. Joy and laughter then become the common denominators that bring smiles to each other’s faces and feelings of delight in each other’s experience. Naturally, it’s always more fun to laugh with someone than by yourself but laughing is laughing and carries all the benefits whether you’re alone or not. As children, we learn so much from play. It teaches us social skills such as sharing, taking turns, self-discipline and tolerance of others. As older adults, we learn different things from playing that adds a lighthearted dimension to our experience.
I think it’s important to be aware that the attitude and motivation you BRING to playing at whatever it is you choose to play, determines how you play, how you are playful and the enjoyment benefits you draw from such activities. You can play a lot or a little, as long as you’re actively feeling enjoyment and pleasure. I think we can safely say that it’s easier for children to play than adults because they’re spontaneous and they have no formed boundary to their sense of freedom. For adults, whether or not you are an “older” adult, the play is usually a self-chosen and self-directed activity, rather than a spontaneous experience, so it may take some thought and effort to get there. Do remember that play is also about imagining, not just planning, and you get to use the non-serious side of your brain to “let loose.” Imagining a “letting loose” allows for creativity to step forth from an active, non-stressed frame of mind.
There are many ways to add more play to your life. Being a wiser older person, you have choices, options and many possibilities to look at that you may not have considered before. The foundation for having a playful time is having a light-hearted attitude. It can change your entire day from sour grapes to sweet strawberries, and it could start as simple as smiling at yourself in the mirror first thing in the morning. Play may be a light subject, but don’t take play lightly or dismiss the importance of playing in your life.
A playful attitude is a willingness to be open to surprises too, to being adult-silly, be vulnerable and joyfully childlike, which is far from being childish. It keeps your sense of wonder and curiosity alive. There are so many benefits! One is you feel good! Remember how several years back you used to have fun and enjoy endless laughs with your friends? They say to keep your old friends but keep making new ones. Find ways to make new friends – community center events, regular bridge games and other types of table games, special cruises for retirees, and senior designated programs for exercise and wellness. Leave the physical image of your aging self behind and just focus on thinking outwardly, being friendly and warm, listening and hearing, being humble without being preponderant, and suggesting a meet-up if you feel there’s a mutual connection. Even dating websites for single seniors can be a fun way to meet new people. You’re never too old for love either!
You can find pleasure, enjoyment, and fun even in the smallest things, especially when you’re coming from a playful attitude. The other day my friend and I laughed so hard because we discovered two new words, “wenis,” a slang term for the extra skin on the bottom of the elbow, and “wagina,” which is a pun on the skin on the inside of the elbow. It was the first time I had ever heard that these body areas had these names, and we laughed about that the entire weekend, providing us with many other lateral puns and jokes. Being playful and open to discoveries that you can laugh wholeheartedly about can give you great residual returns! Scott G. Eberle, Ph.D., vice president for play studies at The Strong and editor of the American Journal of Play, says, “We don’t lose the need for novelty and pleasure as we grow up.”  We can always have it! It’s fun to feel free to be silly with your good friend or partner too. You just choose to allow yourself to be playful and it’s also a kind loving way to be – a loving of yourself. In spite of any ailments, aches, and pains, everything can be made to be fun. You can’t be too serious – time to enjoy!
The Importance of Play in Older Adults
A study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics describes the importance of play in promoting healthy child development. This study showed that play is essential in child development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children. The benefits of play allow children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive and emotional strength. The play was also shown to be helpful in brain development, helping them to conquer fears and develop new competencies that lead to a sense of confidence and resiliency to face future challenges.  All of these benefits of play are the same for older adults, plus many additional benefits.
In a journal called Healthy Aging Research, an article entitled Healthy aging is reflected in well-being, participation, playfulness, and cognitive-emotional functioning.  The authors clearly state that “Research suggests that playfulness facilitates healing, improves morale, and increases motivation. Thus, it can be speculated that playfulness relates to other indicators of well-being, including psychological, cognitive, and physical aspects.”
In other words, we’d be remiss if we said that the importance of play can’t be understated. Yes, in our later years, many of us become more prone to issues that can affect our health and happiness, so any activity that can help us restore or prolong our vitality is essential, and having FUN is a lot more powerful in that regard than most people probably realize. In fact, scientific studies continue to show that play and fun activities for older adults or people of any age, can have several major benefits.
The Parameters of Playfulness
I believe it is safe to say that playfulness is good for you. We play because it’s fun to play and there are physical, psychological, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual benefits to playful playing. And, when we are playful, our creativity and innovation expand.  Playfulness is also about being vulnerable and responsive, allowing yourself to BE in the moment, to be spontaneous, willing and open to jump in and play at the drop of a hat, to be present and bring a sense of presence with you! When you truly appreciate a sunrise or a sunset or notice the sparkle in your grandchild’s eyes shows that you are there to catch the moment, that you are present, that you are willing to be present. And the hard part? Allowing yourself to play, to recognize the opportunity and be ready to accept the invitation. In between it all, you can still be playful, crack jokes, make people laugh, pull pranks that don’t hurt, shake up the status quo in a lighthearted way.
The opposite happens when you feel too self-important. Wanting to be taken too seriously hinders your ability to be playful, always wanting to be in control. Perhaps it’s an old habit of resistance to play that parents or authority figures in our childhood said “work before play”, however, there was always some sort of work to be done! Time to let go and just do things that’s fun, and enjoy yourself, alone or with others. Do things from the heart. Feel free to call someone and ask them to join you in whatever activity you want to do. Be light-hearted and let any possible fear of rejection just slide off you. Keep in mind how important play is to your psyche, how it builds your health and emotional well-being, inspires creativity, relieves stress, increases cognition, and inspiring your sense of humor. A play is the shortest route to happiness because that’s where all the fun is. It’s not an intellectual enterprise, because if you look for “reasons” to be playful, you might find the reasons, but you won’t find playfulness. Find playfulness in your daydreams, in your ability to love another, in your ability to love the day, and love what you do, and the people you are with. Playfulness is everywhere when you have in it in you, and when you look for it too!
The following are some tangible ways to think about how play helps you grow older as a human being.  Some of them have been mentioned in other words in this article and are reiterated more amply below:
- Play improves how your brain works by maintaining your memory and optimizing your ability to learn new things. Playing and having fun on a regular basis can help you avoid memory problems, enhancing your creativity and mental sharpness. Playing can be intellectually stimulating through the fun you’re having.
- Play can help heal, establish, or maintain your relationships. Many seniors are lonely, and loneliness can be avoided by creating yourself a little social life. Social lives are so very important for overall well-being, fun and play can help you make new friends or improve existing relationships. Laughter and friendly competition are known to increase harmony, trust, empathy, and intimacy when people experience them together. 
- Play extends your life and improves your physical vitality. You can feel younger and more energetic by creating plenty of fun moments in your life as a great way to boost your immune system, reduce your risk of illness and minimize your perception of pain (another use of Distraction therapy).
- Play improves your mental and emotional well-being by engaging in fun and playful activities where you get lost in the moment of time because you are having so much fun. These activities expand your sense of optimism, joy and reduce stress, even helping to prevent depression.
- The play is an ideal state of mind to create and learn, and fear of failure rarely enters the equation when you are having fun playing whatever you are playing. I love playing Solitaire by myself or Word Feud on my phone. It’s challenging and fun, and I have to admit, and a bit addictive.
- Play can unleash your imagination, allowing you to think outside the box and let yourself fantasize. Remember when you played cowboys and Indians and “rode” on a broom, pretending it was a horse? Some of that imagination can take hold again in whatever you choose to play.
Playfulness is a State of Emotional Well-being
Do you still have that sense of playfulness you once had? If not, where did it go? Was it absorbed into your reality when you became a more “responsible” adult, when you got married, had children, got older, got sick? Whatever the reason you have to no longer play, it may have robbed you of experiences that could lead you to a healthier sense of emotional well-being, which is the goal for living a happy, meaningful and joyful life, filled with gratitude and appreciation, and of course, a sense of humor. Being in a playful attitude ensures that at least something will make you smile!
Being playful in your life is an important part of feeling a sense of emotional well-being. Just going for a walk in a local park can spark your curiosity and sense of playful discoveries, and watching other people being playful can awaken the playful part in you, and even make you smile. Nature has a way of calming people. Even sitting in the same park every day is never the same. The wind makes the leaves move differently, sometimes you notice birds having nests in the trees, the fall brings a rich palette of a color of the leaves and no two autumns are the same. Ever throw a smooth flat rock into a lake and watch it bounce, just for the fun of it? Anyone for Frisbee or playing catch? You may not be in physical form to play with a hardball, but there are lots of options in the land of possibilities. Just watching others play can fill you with a sense of joy.
How Older Adults Play
Playing can take on many forms. If you’re a grandparent, you can spend time with your younger grandchildren and play games with them. Blow bubbles. That’s always been a popular activity for the kids. Who isn’t fascinated by the iridescent bubbles that you can pop! They sure know how to play, naturally. With my grandchildren, we play Bingo, Uno, Trouble, Life, card games, Yahtzee, Dominos, Scrabble and more. We even play “Chopped”, inspired from the TV cooking show, putting together different ingredients and then cooking or baking them. We even delegate judges. If you don’t want to think, then draw, color or paint without judging what you are doing. There are coloring books for adults with intricately laid themes of great cities of the world and other interesting themes. The coloring is meditative and fun. I also taught my granddaughter how to play the game of Jacks and Pick up Sticks. Remember Marbles? Kids today don’t play those games very much anymore. It’s because they have cell phones with video games on them or are tuned in to Instagram or YouTube videos. My other granddaughter watches videos of making and poking at “slime”, the new craze made out of Elmer’s glue, shaving cream, borax, and shampoo. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s the latest rage among kids. Play can take on many forms. If you are not able to move around, you can get a virtual reality headset and go off and play in a land of your imagination.
You can also get those magnetic word tiles and makeup sayings to put on your refrigerator. Think about inviting a few friends over for game night and make it up as you go along. Movies are always fun and if you like the theatre, go to a show with a friend and then talk about it after. Do whatever sounds FUN to you. Playing with pets is fun too, or walking other people’s dogs might sound fun, or just planting yourself on a bench in a park and watching other people enjoy time with their dog is also fun. And, if you’re still driving to work every day, make up something you want to look for on the drive. Don’t forget to get some dancing in. You can dance alone or with friends, strangers, whoever, just dance any time any place. Just think of whatever you can do to make your life more playful. It’s different for everyone.
If you still drive, you can take a day trip without any plans or route. I went with my friend on Sunday, and we explored downtown Los Angeles, not really knowing where we were going. We discovered a huge flea market with 50 food booths and a band playing music. It was great! Then we came across the new Artists District downtown, had a glass of beer and walked around the area. I call these experiences, “Daycations,” exploring your own city, wherever you may be. There’s a lot to explore in your own neighborhood. You could also go out of your radius and explore another city. When was the last time you went on a Sunday drive for no reason?
Laughter: The Side Effect of Playing
Have you ever laughed so hard you cried, and your head and face hurt? I love that feeling. Laughter is definitely the best medicine even in the face of the most serious situations. Being a Death Midwife with those who are dying, I noticed that maintaining a sense of humor is crucial to ease the experience. There is no rule that says we have to take everything seriously. Laughter is a healing emotion and having a sense of humor about our foibles in being human is as natural as anything else. We can make light of a serious situation without being disrespectful. Don’t mistake having a sense of humor as not honoring the situation.
When you play, there is a quiet laughter involved and that in and of itself is another benefit. According to Dr. Gulshan Sethi, head of cardiothoracic surgery at the Tucson Medical Center and faculty at the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine, “Laughter activates the body’s natural relaxation response. It’s like internal jogging, providing a good message to all internal organs while also toning abdominal muscles.”  So, not only is playful laughter good for the spirit, it’s good for the physical body too. Just think of it as an interval workout, not even having to go to the gym! And, studies have shown that laughter has healing properties as well.
Deepak Chopra describes 6 reasons why laughter is the best medicine. 
- Laugher is contagious, which causes you to smile when someone else smiles, like a yawn.  So, if you are feeling down, find a friend to laugh and play with and your sense of well-being, and feeling good increases.
- Laugher reduces the stress response, increasing blood flow and oxygenation that stimulates the heart and lungs and triggers the release of endorphins that help you feel more relaxed both physically and emotionally.  No wonder I call it my breathing treatment!
- Laughter boosts immunity by increasing natural killer cell levels, a type of white blood cell that attacks cancer cells.  Who wouldn’t want to increase your immune system by playing and laughing?
- Laughter increases resilience helping the ability to bounce back from negative events by using positive emotions to cope without using anger or frustration, allowing you to recognize that making mistakes is a part of being human. 
- Laughter combats depression because it’s a great way to get outside the downward spiral where being unhappy has become a pattern or mindset. The human brain is wired to respond positively to laughter and smiles, generating “feel good” chemicals. Even if you look in the mirror and you smile at yourself, it changes the way you feel, because the brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that produces feelings of happiness.  It’s a good cycle that goes around and around. I smile the moment I wake up in the morning and it helps to set the mood for the entire day.
- Laughter also relieves pain, because when people are not focused so much on the pain, the perceived pain level reduces, along with the belief that they can cope, helping them overcome discomfort.
We have covered many benefits of playfulness in older adults, as well as showing you ways of being playful. It’s important to take these benefits into consideration to inspire you, motivate you and encourage you, as a healthy way to stay positive and young in spirit. So, let yourself engage in activities just for the fun of it, for your enjoyment and recreation, rather than for a serious or practical purpose. Let yourself be lighthearted! Make up your own sandbox games that bring you joy by yourself or with friends and family, whether in your living room, in nature, or anywhere that brings you pleasure. And, don’t forget that laughter is a great breathing treatment and good for your body, mind, and spirit. and as older adults, notice what you learn from playing that adds a lighthearted dimension to your life experience.
It’s your life. Enjoy the journey. And, remember to bring love into everything you do.
doi: 10.12715/har.2015.4.8 Waldman-Levi, Amiya; Erez, Asnat Bar-Haim; Katz, Noomi