Get Outside and Play!

In my consultations with incoming members (you remember yours?) I talk about how we need to make sure we balance the stress in our lives with ‘down time.’ I like to remind people to “get outside and play!”

It’s so easy to work hard – too hard- in our culture. When we are passionate about what we do, or overwhelmed by a ton of responsibilities, we can push ourselves past exhaustion. Running on adrenaline becomes normal, and yet this is seriously detrimental to our health.

Nearly all diseases are caused or worsened by stress, and yet most people experience at least low-level stress most of the time. It’s a deadly fuel. The millions of Americans suffering from depression, addiction, and stress-related disorders demonstrates this.

The good news is that play can mitigate the effects of stress. Play stimulates the production of endorphins, some of the feel-good chemicals in the brain that can trigger happiness and counter stress, anxiety, and depression.

So when was the last time you played? How often do you play? Is it a regular part of your lifestyle?

Sonoma County Coast
The Sonoma Coast is a great place to run and play!

When you were a kid you played all the time. Children learn from their games, and play is an essential part of cognitive, physical, and social development. Through play, children learn how to interact with each other and their environment, how to see the world from different perspectives, and how to cultivate emotional maturity, compassion, boundaries, and other life skills. Children who are unable or not allowed to play often suffer from mental and emotional developmental challenges, and are less likely to succeed and thrive later in life.

Play provides us an antidote to our stressful, overworked lives and ideally should be incorporated into your life at least weekly, but preferably for a little bit every day. In fact, research shows that you are more productive if you work for fewer hours with more playtimes. You see, the brain functions better when we have frequent periods of enjoyable activity and rest, and in particular, play stimulates the areas of the brain responsible for clarity and memory. So more play can provide you more energy, clarity, and creativity for your work.

So what is play? Play is any activity that you enjoy. Sports, dancing, walking, crossword puzzles, building sandcastles, board games, rock climbing, cooking or knitting can all be considered play, depending on who you ask. It can require mental skill, physical skill, social skill, or no skill at all.

What makes an activity play is that:

  • There is no required outcome. You may still want to win the game, or complete the hike, but your enjoyment is not determined by the outcome. The goal is simple to enjoy yourself.
  • It is not quantifiable. Similar to the idea of no required outcome, play is not about what you produce. You might end up with a sweater or 1,000 points, but that is not the point. The idea is to relax and find joy. You do it because you love it.
  • It challenges you in some way. While enjoyment can be had from things were totally comfortable with, play can be really enlivening when it pushes us to our edges a bit. It could be from learning a new skill, playing with new people, or an activity with random possibilities (like a card game or unknown hiking terrain) or just something that draws on parts of your memory you do not use often (such as a crossword puzzle or trivia game.)
  • You are fully committed to the activity. Play brings the greatest benefits when you are totally engaged. Even though you are not attached to the outcome, you still need to play as though it matters, giving your full attention and presence.

In the consultations I do with incoming members, I am often asked by people who run or jog if they should continue to do so when they take up training with us. My answer: if that’s what you do to “get exercise” and “workout” then no, we’ve got you covered for exercise and working out. If you run (or cycle or whatever) for fun, joy, and relaxation – play –  then yes.

Play is a state of mind, and anything you do can be play if you choose to engage it in that way. Honor what you actually enjoy, not what you think you should do in your precious spare time.


The most important thing to incorporate playtime into your life is to do things that bring you joy, and that’s a quality only determined by you.

Play on!

For further reading about play, check out:

“The Lost Art of Play: Reclaiming a Primal Tradition” from Mark’s Daily Apple
“15 Concrete Ways to Play” from Mark’s Daily Apple
Exuberant Animal Resource Library