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Why we should play more as we get older

31 Dec 2021 | Written by By Chris Guiton

“Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do,” noted humourist and novelist Mark Twain. “Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

Twain hit the nail on the head with this statement. As a writer, much of his work celebrated childhood, innocence and play. Reflecting his own carefree, experience-rich upbringing in Hannibal, Missouri. 

But it’s a sad fact that many of us lose the ability to play as we grow up. We become sensitised to the opinions of others. Embarrassed at appearing ‘immature’. And strive to adopt the mantle of adulthood as quickly as we can. 

What a shame. Play is fun. It contributes to our physical and mental well-being. It makes us feel good about ourselves. Because, at the centre of play, is a sense of spontaneity, subversiveness and indiscipline. 


Playing for peace and survival

Not only is play life-enhancing, it also stimulates our imagination, increases our creativity and lifts our spirits. Precisely because it appears to lack practical goals or benefits, it allows us to be in the moment, connect with the wellsprings of our being and cultivate inner peace. 

Cultural theorist Johan Huizinga defined play in his classic work Homo Ludens as: “a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it.”

Play also appears to have an evolutionary logic, equipping humankind with the physical and mental skills we need to survive as a species. Using play to explore unfamiliar objects, investigate new physical activities and experience untried sensory impressions in novel ways. 

Happily, all this means we can learn and have fun at the same time. As Albert Einstein observed, “Play is the highest form of research.” What’s not to like!


The urge to create comes from the impulse to play

Research indicates that being playful opens the door to a state of mind where we can dispense with ordinary rules, feel comfortable taking risks and have the confidence to explore the unknown. 

Unsurprisingly, avant-garde artists and musicians often demonstrate a greater propensity for playfulness than their mainstream counterparts. 

Think of Erik Satie, the late 19th/early 20th-century French composer, who was noted for his playful and provocative wit. Instructing pianists to play a fortissimo piece, ‘As light as an egg’. But was also one of the originators of modern harmony. 

Or 20th-century artist and sculptor Marcel Duchamp who described his motivation in terms of play rather than any conscious artistic expression. And remarked, “It was always the idea of ‘amusement’ which causes me to do things.” Though you might ask yourself whether he was being a tad disingenuous given his love of controversy and lifelong commitment to épater le bourgeois


Play is a serious business 

What this is all leading up to is the importance of play for older people. As celebrated playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.” Spot on, George! Experts believe that we need to make more time for play as we age. And that it’s as important to healthy ageing as physical exercise. 

This can be difficult when faced with the pressures of work and family. But if we’ve lost touch with our sense of play as adults, it can be difficult to recover it when we move into semi-retirement or take full retirement. 

We might have lots of time on our hands but have simply forgotten how to relax, have fun and get the best out of life. We might even dismiss play as mere childishness. A diversion from more serious things. 

But play not only connects us with other people, it stimulates our imagination and improves our well-being. It helps us stay sharp, improves memory and thinking skills, and keeps us feeling young. And retirement is the perfect opportunity to reflect on what matters in life and rediscover that wonderful sense of freedom and possibility that we had in childhood. 


Don’t underestimate the importance of having fun

It’s up to you to find out what you enjoy doing the most. It might be indoor activities that stimulate the mind. Or something outdoors that gets you physically active. Some things you can do yourselves. Others with friends. But getting out of the rut of doing what you’ve always done is a good place to start. Experiment. Try different things. See what takes your fancy.  

Here are some suggestions you might want to try:

  • Consider joining a drama club, taking up ballroom dancing or even trying comedy improv. You never know! 
  • Play cards or board games with friends (or even online). They’re a great way to unwind in an informal environment.  
  • Try out a new sport. You probably don’t want to take up something too energetic like squash. But maybe give swimming, badminton or bowls a go. And there’s lots of guided walking groups out there.
  • Take up an art or craft, maybe drawing, pottery or quilting. Release that inner artist!
  • Try organising joint activities or day trips with a group of friends. Perhaps going to that new restaurant in town, visiting the cinema or theatre, or catching up on local music events.   
  • Find out what your local community centre might be offering. They often provide a range of activities from art appreciation classes to local history clubs to yoga and Pilates classes.
  • Try learning a new skill, for example a foreign language or musical instrument.
  • Maybe go on a vineyard or brewery tour or try a beer or food festival.
  • And last (but not least!), try one of our live online events. They come in all shapes and sizes. And our members love them!      

The important thing is to give yourself a licence to play. Choose what works for you. And make a daily commitment to having fun.

Why not share your personal thoughts on how to play more in the comments below?

Chris is a writer based in Crowborough, East Sussex who loves working with words. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, listening to music and hiking, as well as having a chat with friends over a pint of Harvey’s Best Bitter. He can be contacted at www.wealdenwordsmith.co.uk 

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