The Science of Play

Bridget Hilton | Mental Health, Workplace Belonging, Motivational, Goal Setting Keynote Speaker | Experiential Billionaire Author

When did you stop playing? And by playing, I mean doing something just for fun, with no goals or expectations about the outcome. Even if it’s a game with winners and losers, the result doesn’t matter, and your aim isn’t to get better over time. It’s just to enjoy. (Consuming entertainment doesn’t count—real play involves your active engagement, beyond just watching a screen or turning the page.)

As a kid, practically all you wanted to do was play. Every other activity (school, homework, chores, family dinner) was something you had to get through so you could go play. 

But little by little, other things became more important. It’s not just that you now spend more (or most) of your time making sure bills get paid, people get taken care of, chores get done, etc. There’s been a social and psychological shift in priorities, too. Society expects adults to be productive, responsible, and serious; play is a luxury reserved for children. So, you might feel like it’s immature to play, and other people would judge you for it. And the less you play, the less exercise your imagination gets, and the more focused you become on practical matters—perpetuating the downward spiral of playtime.

Over time, the things you used to play at become serious endeavors, or to-do list items, or no longer worth doing at all. Running around with your friends outside becomes running on the treadmill at the gym, scheduling coffee dates to see your friends, and attending networking events to make new ones. We think of those activities as good and healthy, but they’re actually remarkably unnatural, not to mention not very fun. Because if you saw a kid doing any of those things, you would feel like you were in an alternate universe. Kids don’t run to stay fit, they run to feel the wind on their face and the grass beneath their feet. Kids don’t network to climb a career ladder, they bond through joyful moments. Kids go for what they want without worrying about why or what for—they just want to have fun. As adults, we deny ourselves that luxury without understanding the incredible benefits we’re missing out on.

Physical play is a powerful driver of your brain’s plasticity (its ability to change and learn), especially when it challenges your balance and makes you move in new ways. Even simple games force you to consider a wide variety of possible outcomes and make quick decisions. That engages and strengthens your prefrontal cortex, i.e., your “executive function.” You get to explore those possibilities in a low-stakes environment, where the consequences of making poor choices aren’t serious. 

Playing with others is also critical for developing and refining social skills. It teaches you how to cooperate, read emotions, and express yourself. The basis of human trust is established through play signals, and if we stop playing, we begin to lose those signals.

This stuff is super important for kids, but it’s still valuable in adulthood. Some of the most famous creatives in history—artists, inventors, writers—are notable for the importance they placed on play throughout their lives. Play boosts creativity because it keeps your sense of exploration and possibilities alive, and it reminds you that it’s okay to test different ideas and approaches to a problem. Even in a competitive situation, maintaining a spirit of playfulness will help you perform your best because it takes focus off the stakes and opens up your creativity.

Play is also a powerful tool for shaping your identity as an adult. When you’re young, your brain cells are hyperconnected, which makes it easy to learn and change. By age 25, nearly half of those connections are gone, and it takes more effort to create new connections or remove unwanted ones. Because play activates brain plasticity, it can help you change for the better throughout your life.

Brain health is one reason to play, but the other big one is simple: it’s fun! Who doesn’t want more fun in their life?

Hustle culture might be whispering in your ear right now, telling you that anything that’s not productive is a waste of time. Something else is always more important, and there’s always more to do than you seem to have time for. How can you justify adding playtime to your calendar? What are you, five?

Not only does that attitude suck the fun out of life, but it also dampens the joy you feel when you do play because you’re simultaneously judging yourself for slacking off.

It’s also misguided. Play is a form of self-care. It relieves stress, energizes you, lifts you out of the mundane, eases your burdens, and renews your optimism. By refreshing your mind, play actually makes you more productive when you get back to work—just like resting your muscles after a workout lets them heal and grow stronger.

Play also leads you to explore new behaviors, thoughts, strategies, and ways of being. It prompts you to look at things differently, which stimulates learning and creativity. Giving your brain a break from the problems it has been focused on can, paradoxically, lead to breakthroughs on those problems. 

You thought you couldn’t afford to play, but, it turns out, you actually can’t afford not to.

When you make time for play, you’ll see that the act of playing is just the start. Once you get into the habit, the play mindset will start to filter into your worldview. You’ll feel more active, more adventurous, more free. It’s like flipping your mind to a completely new channel.

That’s when you’ll start to lose tolerance for activities that don’t bring you joy—and that’s a good thing. The more fun you have in your life, the more you want to have, and you can bring that playful perspective to everything you do, including your work. 

I like the sound of that.



About Bridget Hilton

Bridget Hilton creates tools to help teams and leaders connect in the workplace through rich experiences and shared goals. Her keynote helps Fortune 500 companies navigate topics of mental health and wellness, burnout, employee belonging and connection, inspiration, motivation, and goal setting. Her book Experiential Billionaire and card deck Treasure Maps is out now. She is located in Los Angeles, CA and is booking keynotes and workshops worldwide now.