Play Ball! The Lifelong Power of Play

As the Boys of Summer take their game to the World Series, let's talk about the power of play. Not just to watch it, but to do it. The famous jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who died two days short of his 94th birthday, said, "Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing."

He probably didn't mean that everyone should play shortstop. And he couldn't have predicted today's digital brain games. Much more likely, he was referring to the kinds of active, absorbing and often social pursuits that we know help us stay sharp as we age.

When my daughter was little, she'd usually ask that we "just play" -- nothing specific, just the huge and happy catch-all of making up fun as we went along. Often involving roughhouse, but also improvising random Barbie skits or rolling toy trucks down the hall. These days, "play" for her encompasses quieter, more solitary pursuits, such as writing code, listening to music and playing with a Rubik's cube.

But kids are smarter than we are, and she's right to call it play. It feels good. It's voluntary. There isn't any obvious goal and she makes it up as she goes along. Psychologists say that underneath that apparent aimlessness, play serves a larger purpose, helping us develop our full human potential.

Holmes was also hinting at the way we segregate play to childhood. Grown-ups don't play, they work. When they do play, it's confined to a very narrow band of socially acceptable activities, many of them supporting the so-called leisure industries. Let me ask you this: If they are industries, then how is it leisure?

Then, after the working years, according to this traditional rubric, older people get to "play" again -- as in, play golf and play bridge. The happiest older people I know are doing more than that. They're playing golf and bridge all right, but they are also going to school, singing in groups, writing memoirs, learning languages, recording music, walking and swimming and lifting weights, sharing their knowledge, burning up their bandwidth limits, and tending to children and the fullness of the Earth.

Is that play? If so, we need more of it!

Meanwhile, scientists are piling up the evidence about why people play. In fact, here's a full feature article on what scientists have learned about animal play. (Warning! Photo of winged insect!)

Our animal friends are not fooling around: During periods of what seems like play to us, animals are actually learning how to get along with others, developing social and survival skills, even learning the right way to mate. Consider this: According to the American Psychological Association, "...rats without play have been known to mount the wrong part of their mates' body, such as the head."

Now that's not very helpful.

If play, especially social play, is an adaptive behaviour that has helped animals survive, it has done so by developing the brain. And maybe we're the biggest, arguably most creative players of all time. Consider Double Dutch jump rope. Ultimate Frisbee? Mad Libs?

We even turn shopping into a game, with treasure hunts in the mall. And we certainly produce the most toys: You think that zebras have to hold garage sales to dump their worn-out Big Wheels, tattered Twister mats and beat-up boxes of Chutes and Ladders?

A mixture of social interaction and intellectual challenge (as offered by such games as bridge) appear to offer older people a kind of combined cognitive protection. In short, older people who play together, stay together -- and tend to stay intact.

Again, this raises the question: What can we do to support our ability to play well into old age? Isn't it time to develop new games for older adults that go beyond such stimulating staples as Bingo?

Spectator sports, like watching the Series, are lots of fun. Playing sports at any level is fun, healthy and social. Playing any game, in fact, can be a tonic and an aid to continuing development well into old age. Like laughter and sleep, play -- especially social play -- make for great free medicine, one whose side effects can be welcomed with enthusiasm.

That said, why should kids have all the fun? Why not Toys "R" Us 4 All of Us?

What do you do for play as you get older? Do you get enough play time? What could you do to add more play to your days... and to play nice with the other kids?