How Play helps Mental Health

Health may be one of those things like art that we recognize when we see it.  Imagine a child, unselfconsciously and joyfully at play with peers on a playground, a youth with bright eyes and glowing complexion, or a couple walking hand in hand.  In contrast, when our health is suddenly compromised in some big or small way, we know what we’re missing.  The loss of a loved one or a job leaves a hole in our sense of self.

What comprises emotional or mental health, and how can we either maintain or move towards it?  We have the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) to help us identify deficits or ill-health, but what are appropriate goals for healing?  Certainly health is more than the absence of mal-adaptive symptoms.  The currently popular term “well-being” is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as the state of being happy and healthy.  The measurement of this is very subjective, but in the world of mental health self-report, or the subjective, felt sense is the recognized standard.

Nancy McWilliams, PhD, Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University explored this topic at a recent conference.  Her thesis was that having a specific construct of what constitutes mental wellness fits within the framework of a more holistic approach to medicine.

Body and Mind

There is greater recognition today of the interrelatedness of the mind and body.  Scientists have shown that what you think about yourself has an impact on your physical health.  For instance, depression has been found to have the same level of negative impact on physical health as smoking, and cancer patients are taught meditation and guided imaging to use in conjunction with chemotherapy because studies have shown that it improves outcomes.

Freud identified the hallmarks of good mental health as the ability to love, work, and play.  Dr Williams expanded on this with: movement toward a secure attachment, sense of autonomy, self and object constancy, ego strength, realistic self-esteem, abiding values, affect tolerance and regulation, insight, theory of mind, sense of vitality, and acceptance.  She allowed that the extended list may just be an elaboration of the three goals identified by Freud, but found it useful to consider the various aspects, and how they add to a sense of well-being, or health.

Play and Mental Health

I propose that play can foster health in many of these areas.  While play may be the language of children as Erikson noted, it is valuable at all stages of life.  Or, as the old maxim states: we don’t stop playing because we grow old, but we grow old because we stop playing.  Clinicians who work with children use many forms of play in therapy, but as parents and professionals do we make room for play in our own lives, to foster our own well-being?

Now the reader may wonder if I hadn’t noticed how youth-centric the culture is, and shouldn’t we be encouraging people to grow up rather than regress?  Before you decide that I’m being frivolous consider the cautions presented in a pamphlet by Dr. Bruce Perry on the risk of secondary trauma for those who work with troubled children and adults, this extends to other family members.  Too often by the time parents seek help for their child they are overwhelmed and on the point of burn-out.  According to Perry, in order “to avoid feeling overwhelmed by feelings of frustration and sadness it is important to engage in activities [individuals] consider fun or playful.”

Play can foster wellness on several levels. Whether it’s sitting on the floor with a favorite child, picking flowers in your garden, or playing a round of golf with a friend, play gives our over-worked left brains a break, and releases the feel good chemicals in the brain: serotonin, dopamine, and nor-epinephrine.  We need these chemicals to be in balance in order to feel well.  Play also often gets us moving which is good for the body, and releases endorphins

Play as an Adult

Those who know me know that I enjoy training my dogs for the sport of agility.  I’ve recently been wondering why this activity is so important to me.  A simple, playful interaction gave me useful insight.  Following presenter Teri Krull’s instruction in a recent Arizona Association of Play Therapy training to play with multi-colored pipe cleaners I created an abstract construction representing myself and a dog.  After just a few minutes I had fresh understanding that playing with my dogs not only gives me joy, but fosters a sense of peace within myself.  In other words, it relieves stress, by allowing me to be in the moment for a time, and set other concerns aside.

Many families, especially here in Arizona, find swimming a fun activity that brings them closer together.  Swimming has the added benefit that it provides opportunities for appropriate skin to skin contact that so many older children need, but don’t get enough of.  The image that comes to mind is my husband battling our teenage son in the water for control of the basketball.  Parents may also find that playing with their kids allows them opportunities to stay in the loop of what is going on socially during those challenging tween and teen years.  More than one dad has found that running with his son or daughter to be an effective way to be available for important conversations.  This way for dads to connect was recently depicted in the family movie “Courageous.”

Contemporary society offers many forms of permission for adults to play: sports, kids, pets, crafts, gardening, computer & cell phone games.  While all play has benefit, it may be that play involving physical movement is more efficacious than stationary activities.  While watching sports activates some of the same neurons that playing the sport does, moving is more health- promoting.  Apparently, sitting is not healthy for humans.  So, to the extent you are able, include active forms of play in your repertoire.

As the Kelly Clarkson song, “Stronger”, proclaims: “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  If play helps us find renewed hope, increased relational skills, greater self-awareness, and renewed enthusiasm for our lives, we and those we love will be stronger.  So in order to maintain our own health along the way, I recommend a regular dose of play in whatever form brings you joy. Please click to read more about Family Christian Counseling Centers use of play in therapy.


Anisman-Reiner, Victoria.  “Emotions and Physical Health: Can what you think and feel affect your health and the way you live?”  2006,

McWilliams, Nancy. “What are we helping patients toward: Reflections on overall psychological health”?  2012, The Christian Association for Psychological Studies Conference

Perry, Bruce D. “The Cost of Caring: Secondary Traumatic Stress and the Impact of Working with High-Risk Children and Families”.  2003, The Child Trauma Academy

Reynolds, Gretchen.  “The Evolution of the Runners’ High”.

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