Successful Aging: The importance of play for stress relief and brain function

Q. A friend of mine recently told me about an art workshop she attended with several other older and mid-life adults that was pure fun. She said everyone was told they were artists before participating in a scribbling and coloring exercise with no rules or expectations. My friend talked about a sense of freedom she experienced. My guess is if a child were doing this, this workshop would be called play. As a newly retired 69-year-old, I feel I am not playing at all and not even sure how to go about it. Any suggestions? D.P.

Your question resonates with me. Here is a personal story. A number of years ago I attended a meeting in Indianapolis. The group facilitator presented a warm-up exercise. All participants in the room were asked to comment on what did they do for fun this past year. That was the year my husband passed away. As everyone was sharing their fun activity, I kept thinking, “I have nothing to say.” Finally, I said, “playing with my grandson,” which was true. At a dinner that evening, I had the honor of sitting next to a university president. After chatting a few moments, he leaned back in his chair and asked, “So, Helen what do you do for fun?” Again, I had a difficult time answering his questions and thought, “Do I have a problem?” Although this experience occurred some time ago, it has stayed with me. Play often is left behind while we often are consumed with work and busy with family and friends.

Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play defines “play” as “purposeless, all-consuming and fun.” Play is most often associated with children, nurturing their creativity, critical thinking, personality development and flexibility. Yet play also benefits those in later life. Engaging in play alleviates stress that can trigger the release of endorphins, often referred to as the feel-good chemical leading to a sense of well-being. 

Play has been used as a stress reducer by luminaries. David Beckham, soccer icon, says he plays with Lego bricks to calm himself down. David Cameron, Britain’s former prime minister, is known to decompress at the end of a long day by playing the videogame Angry Birds.

Play for older adults is reported to improve brain functioning as a result of playing chess or solving puzzles. Play also stimulates creativity, enhances problem-solving, improves relationships and can even help in making new friends

Brown advocates that play is not just for kids. The type of play that excites adults the most may be related to what he calls play personalities. He found that most people have one of eight dominant types of play.

The collector. The collector collects things and experiences which might consist of toys, stamps, coins, pitchers, shoes or cars or even collecting evidence of certain star constellations. 

The competitor. The competitor competes to win, not just for the fun of the game. That could be participating in a team sport, playing a video game or just being an observer.  

The director. These folks are referred to as born organizers and enjoy planning events and directing activities. They are great party givers and love to make things happen and becoming a dynamic social center of power and activities. 

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The holidays can make time seem to fly by. Here are some reasons why.

The creator/artist. The creator or artist finds great joy in creating something such as painting, woodworking, gardening, sewing or knitting. Think of the great artists or even Steve Jobs who combined aesthetics with function and technology.   

The explorer. Exploration can be physical such as searching for new vacation spots or even exploring a cave or emotions as in deepening feelings through music and movement. The explorer might engage in science, technology or even politics. 

The joker. Today’s jokers might have been the class clown. They like to make people laugh.  

The kinesthete. These folks like to move. Some need to move to think. They like to feel the exertion and movement of their bodies in activities such as football, dance, yoga, swimming or even jumping rope.  

The storyteller. Imagination is the key writes Brown. Storytellers can be authors, playwrights, screenwriters or cartoonists. They can tell a story through dance, acting, lectures or even magic tricks.   

These categories are not based on science but on thousands of interviews and observations according to Brown. They may be useful in stimulating new ways to engage in play considering one or more categories that look like great fun.  

George Bernard Shaw is said to have expressed the following view on play: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” 

D.P., Thank you for your good question. Our challenge is to make time for play without feeling guilty that we are not solving climate change or contributing to our Gross National Product – at least for the moment.    

Stay well, enjoy this holiday season and know kindness is everything. 

Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at  Visit Helen at and follow her on

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