Mark Ackerman, PA-C

Mark Ackerman, PA-C

By Mark Ackerman, PA

In 2016, my youngest son was blessed enough to be able to swim in the Special Olympic World Games. Held in Las Angeles, California, athletes from all over the world came to compete in the summer games. They all had two things in common, they were cognitively impaired and they were there seeking a victory. It was amazing to see how all these young people walked around like celebrities, being greeted by, and entertained by highly important people.

I remember an article written at that time by the Special Olympics organization about how natural it is for all athletes, including cognitively disabled athletes and even blind athletes, to throw their hands up in the air in celebration of a victory. It was almost as if a victory pose of putting your hands in the air was a primordial instinct. And so, as I watched the games, sure enough, athlete after athlete, even those who didn’t win the Gold medal would throw their hands up in celebration of their accomplishments.

If you talk to sports psychologists about this phenomenon, they will probably tell you that these athletes do this in response to what is called “flow.” The older term is “being in the zone” but I really think that the word flow, on closer inspection, is more appropriate. Flow is really about getting lost in the moment of an activity where one forgets about judging themselves and even forgets about time. They are, as some people have commented about it, “as if they are unconscious.”

It is interesting to me that in addition to celebrating accomplishments with the same signal, we humans have a primordial instinct to engage in some sort of play in our lives. Even if that play is not competitive in nature, we all have the instinct and desire to play, to engage in “flow” and celebrate . Of course we mostly see this in children at different stages of development but for most of us, the instinct never really goes away and usually just takes on a more cognitive form in our adult lives.

So what is play and what is it about playing that is so important that we are born with this instinct? The National Institute for Play (yes there is such a thing!) defines play as the “state of mind that one has when absorbed in an activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of a sense of time.” The Psychiatrist Francie Broghammer defines play as an activity that is done just for its own sake- the activity is an end in and of itself; and, in doing so, you get lost in the activity. It is engaging in activity where you tend to lose a sense of yourself and a sense of time.

There are some other components that help to define play. One is that it must be voluntary and another is that it should be improvisational, that is, it does not have to follow a specific structure. A third component is that a byproduct of playing should be fun.

So obviously, there are two types of play, physical and cognitive. These can go hand in hand of course and don’t necessarily have to be separated. Playing physically can be a sport or a dance or even just running and jumping for the fun of it. It can also be a type of work, cooking for instance can be an activity that is fully playful. Cognitive play can be anything from playing a card game to a board game or even just a play on words in a conversation. These things can be strategic games in our head that bring us a little daily enjoyment.

But as mentioned above, this ability to play is a primordial instinct. It is something that is unique to mammals in general and people specifically. So It must have some underlying benefit. And because we engage in play even as adults, means that the benefit is life long and not just part of our development as children.

Some of the health benefits of play include:
Increased creativity
Improved brain function
Improved physical development such as balance, strength, coordination and mobility
Stress relief
Improved relationships and connections to others- improved social skills
Increased problem solving
Increased immune function

But what is really interesting is that some people can have an abundance of play in their lives while others have a deficit in the activity of play. In regards to the amount of play we need, this is difficult to quantify. Psychologists will tell us though, that the opposite of play is not work, but depression. Psychological studies have shown that people who don’t play enough are more likely to have mild to moderate depression and are more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system.

On the other hand, too much play can have a negative impact on how we flourish. Playing too much can actually lead you into trouble with addiction. Think of gambling for example. In moderation that can be really fun. But, if you get to the point where you gamble for an ulterior motive, like winning money to pay bills with, then too much play becomes a real detriment to your life. The same is true of playing games just simply to escape reality. Too many video games can lead people down that path.

I think that engaging in healthy play on a regular basis is exceedingly important. We need play in order to flourish personally and help our society flourish. We need play in our lives to combat the stress and depression of this world that focuses primarily on the negative.

So today, whenever you accomplish something, even if it is only for its own sake, and even though it doesn’t matter to anyone else, throw up your hands in victory! Allow yourself to be a little kid again and start reaping the benefits of being playful!