In our society, so many of us are wrapped up in hectic schedules, busy jobs, and overwhelming daily tasks. In our high-paced, electronically filled world, we rarely consider the option to take a break. The pressure to constantly be working or bettering ourselves is pervasive in our culture, allowing us to forget the value of more recreational pursuits. When was the last time you did something just for fun?
Both here at the Viva Center and in her practice in Alexandria, Cathy Canfield, LICSW, promotes the importance of finding time for fun and relaxation through her work with play therapy. I got the chance to sit down with Cathy the other day and discuss the benefits of this unique therapeutic approach. Through her years of experience and study in this field, Cathy knows the importance of play for all ages. Children especially profit from free-form play, like kicking around a soccer ball, rather than a more restrictive sense of play, like attending soccer practice. Cathy says that this free-form play approach “assists imagination and nurtures creativity, which therefore assists brain development and overall helps further intellect.” The simple instruction to play with a soccer ball grants the child with the freedom to develop a sense of independence and creativity in that moment. When a child is given a lot of direction in their play, it no longer is his or her own personal outlet of expression. Operating under specific direction, children activate fewer forms of expressiveness and problem-solving skills because the whole plan is already laid out for them. This structure decreases the exploration factor, which is an important component in developing intellectually.
The notion of play as intellectual exploration has also been presented in national media. In May 2008, Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play (NIFP) gave a TED talk on play as a necessary and natural part of what makes us human. “We are designed to play throughout our lifetime,” Brown argues, “[and] nothing lights up the brain like play.” In the April 2001 TIME magazine article, “What Ever Happened to Play?” Walter Kirn and Wendy Cole interview Alvin Rosenfield, author of The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap. Rosenfield argues that “play doesn’t just make kids happy, healthy, and human. It may also make them smarter.” As Brown, Rosenfield, and Viva’s own Cathy Canfield point out, it is not only healthy, but also actually more productive to take some time to play.
Free-form play is not only beneficial for children, but for adults as well. In our meeting, Cathy explained how often times it is difficult for adults to stay in the present because we tend to get lost in the daily stressors: “I should have done this, and I need to do that!” However, as human beings, we get the most fulfillment and enjoyment out of getting lost in something that is just plain old fun. “We are wired to have fun our whole lives and we don’t have to stop at a certain age,” Cathy argues. Adult play therapy often takes an artistic approach, using methods like collage making, but can be beneficial in many different forms. What kinds of activities did you enjoy as a child? As a teenager? As a young adult or even a year ago? Find something that gives you pure enjoyment for the sake of fun, and you will surely reap the benefits.