The Importance of Play Across All Ages Remains Relevant

Story by Laura Olsonoski, OTD, OTR/L
Photo by Melissa Bluntonoski

Play contributes to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of individuals across the lifespan. This learning process is self-sustained in children and based on a natural love of learning and playful engagement with life. As we age this process becomes more complex. We begin to be influenced by social norms and thrive off of routine, predictability and goal attainment. We naturally avoid vulnerable situations that place us in a state of acting without knowing.

Many Americans go from the desk to the couch year after year, believing erroneously that the TV will provide needed relaxation and stress reduction. Our careers begin to take precedence and we create a strict sequenced step system that begins to dictate every decision we make. We forget about play, how to do things for no other reason than to do them or just because we can.

Many adults believe that this is a typical aspect of aging and that at a certain age play becomes obsolete and unnecessary. When in fact, play may be the very thing that keeps us young, fulfilled and healthy.

Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp found that play stimulates the production of a protein, “brain-derived neurotrophic factor,” in the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, which are responsible for cognitive functioning, emotional well-being and attention. Numerous studies show the correlation between
play and the increase in efficiency of our immune, endocrine and cardiovascular systems.

Active play activities have proven to increase range of motion, agility, coordination, balance, flexibility, and fine and gross motor participation.

Heidi Halverson smiles at the camera while cross-country skiing at Lolo Pass in April 2011.

Heidi Halverson smiles at the camera while cross-country skiing at Lolo Pass in April 2011.

Play has been defined as any activity freely chosen, intrinsically motivated and personally directed. It stands outside “ordinary” life, and is non-serious but at the same time absorbing the player intensely. It has no particular goal other than itself. Play is not a specific behavior or task but any activity undertaken with a playful frame of mind. Individuals engage in play without having a reason for doing so. When asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, George Mallory said “Because it’s there.”

As an occupational therapist I have witnessed the direct effect of my clients’ health and well-being and their level of engagement in social, leisure and play participation. Occupational therapy is a skilled health, rehabilitation and educational service that helps people participate in the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities (occupations). Occupational therapy practitioners promote play for all individuals, with or without disabilities. Play challenges could indicate a need for further assessment. If you would like to consult an occupational therapist, ask your physician or other health professionals for information on how you can access an occupational therapist in your area.

As an occupational therapist and someone who engages in play routinely I believe it is important to develop the ability to simply do something for no other reason than curiosity or interest. Forget about what others willsay or think. Engage in an activity without expectation for result, accolade or productivity.

You can start small. Dance poorly to Zeppo Montana, at the Union Club. Sing horribly in the car just because you can. Take a spontaneous trip to Denver. Attend a class at the Lifelong Learning Center for no other reason than it looks interesting. Go for a drive in the Bitterroot, flip a coin at each turn to see where you end up. Call up a friend or family member and ask them to show you how to knit, play the violin, you name it. Take that art class you’ve wanted to take since you were a kid.

This winter, commit to engaging in the winter activities Montana has to offer. Here are a couple playful suggestions for interacting with our beautiful surroundings: Hit the slopes! Ski hills in Montana often offer lessons for beginners and always offer magnificent, mind-blowing views. Not interested in going fast down a mountain? Cross-country skiing or snowshoeing may be more your style. Check out for a list of trails just waiting to be discovered. If you’re looking for a relaxing and healing getaway, take a dip at one of the many hot springs resorts and pools in Montana. Want to take the road less traveled? Check out dog sledding; in Whitefish head to Dog Sled Adventures Montana to glide through the wilderness.

Montana is full of unpaved experiences just waiting to be discovered. Be brave as you create your own sensational memories. Get good at “wasting time” in unexpected ways and remember play doesn’t have an age limit.

Laura Olsonoski, OTD, OTR/L, can be reached at

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