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Written by Hannah Keegan

Hannah Keegan is the deputy features editor at Stylist magazine. You can find her on twitter at @hannahkeegan.

Feeling overworked but underwhelmed? Stylist reports on the very real benefits of channelling your inner child and carving out some playtime.

Emma Worrollo, a play consultant based in Bournemouth, is watching a group of adults get their hands dirty. Play-Doh is being pushed and pulled and moulded, using pregabalin for anxiety the sticky substance forming shapes and figurines. One woman is making a sculpture of herself up a tree as a child. Another is creating a model of how she sees her life right now. “That’s when more straight lines and enclosed spaces occur,” Worrollo says. “When that happens, I ask: ‘What would the kid-you change? How do you get that sense of fun back in your life?’”

Worrollo runs these workshops virtually for her Patreon community, The Playful Den, and its accompanying Instagram (find its fans under #liveplayfully). She has a background in children’s research and began the project as a way to help mothers engage with their children as they played, but she soon realised adults were wildly in need of relearning the joy of play for themselves, too. “It then surged in popularity during lockdown,” she says. “It was mostly because I was talking about the positive ways this impacts mental health, and people needed that relief hugely.”

She isn’t wrong. After two years of pandemic hell, many of us remain square-eyed and exhausted – an Indeed survey found 67% of all workers felt their burnout had worsened in 2020, and that number is expected to have risen since. This is why, more than ever, we desperately need to reclaim ‘play’ as unadulterated us time. Think of it like this: if you had access to a release valve that helps you switch off entirely, and then allows you to come back to whatever you’re working on afresh, why wouldn’t you use it?

And play is having a moment. Last year, British artist Emily Forgot installed a series of colourful climbing-frame-like structures to “inspire optimism and playfulness after lockdown” in London. Sadiq Khan also appointed five children as Mayors of Play, in an effort to encourage people to explore the city through the guides they create – with fun being the whole point. Meanwhile Coralie Sleap, founder of the play-obsessed London store and events space Drink, Shop & Do, which Covid sadly forced to close for good, has written Get Your Play On, a book packed with kid-like activities adults are encouraged to embrace. Play-Doh now sells adult kits with scents such as Overpriced Latte and Spa Day, while elsewhere, bars are encouraging a game-like atmosphere. Think Shoreditch’s Ballie Ballerson, which has a literal ballpit, and Monopoly Lifesized, the IRL version of the boardgame, now open in London’s Tottenham Court Road.

While it all sounds great, how exactly do we define ‘play’? As an adult, the word can evoke scenes of a messy night out, a high-energy spin class, even an online shopping spree. But it isn’t really any of these things – nor is it letting loose in the pub after a long week at work or meeting up with your teammates to compete in a game of netball. Don’t get me wrong: that’s all fun, but it’s not the same type of frivolous just-for-the-sake-of-it silliness reminiscent of childhood. It’s this kind of play that has the power to take us completely out of ourselves, help us shrug off adult self-consciousness and – more good news – has a positive impact on our brain, too.

“We tend to think of play as anti-productivity, but studies have shown that it actually helps us deal with stress because of the positive emotions it produces,” says Dave Neale, a researcher in the psychology of play at the University of Cambridge. Indeed, it’s been proven that play releases endorphins, improves brain function and stimulates creativity – a sensation Worrollo refers to as “a vaccination against the stresses of adult life”, meaning if we regularly make time for pointless play, we’re working towards becoming more resilient in other areas of our lives. Not so pointless, after all. It also stimulates the secretion of BDNF, a substance essential for the growth of brain cells. “Plus, it’s known to help people enter a meditative state of ‘flow’, which is what happens when we’re fully immersed in the present and not thinking beyond that,” says Neale. In short: it’s mindfulness, but fun.

The true state of play is one Sleap knows well. “At the shop, we would get serious groups of lawyers come in and find whatever playful activity we were doing hard at first, but I would slowly watch those barriers come down. Soon, they’d be absorbed in it, which was amazing to see,” she says. One of her most popular sessions was painting Lionel Richie’s face on a rich tea biscuit, but in her book she recommends everything from ‘gamifying’ chores to connecting with ‘the animal within’ (be warned: this involves play-fighting and camouflage). “It’s about giving yourself conscious permission to play and realising, ‘Oh, I’m allowed to do this.’ Not every activity has to hinge on productivity.”

Similarly, Worrollo recalls women coming to her workshops unsure of whether they could give themselves ‘permission’ to play, asking themselves if it was a worthwhile use of their time, or how to even go about doing it. “They will usually say, ‘I don’t even know what I find fun any more,’” she explains. “And that means they’re out of touch with the core of who they are.” Over the years, she has seen transformation after transformation. She tells me about one woman who decided to quit a job that was making her miserable and countless others who simply rethought the ways they were spending their free time. “The more you play, the more you learn how to go towards joy,” she says. “And the more you start living authentically as yourself.” Here, four women share the ways they’ve made room for play in their own lives.

The feeling you get from actually doing it is euphoric

Play of choice: Hula Hoop

Faye Buckland, 26, Liverpool

“When I told my friends and colleagues I was going to buy a hula hoop, they laughed. The idea had come from Instagram – I’d landed on videos of grown adults spinning one round and round their waists (check out #hulahoop) one evening and found myself in fits of giggles. I was deeply bored, in lockdown like the rest of the country, and it seemed so fun.

I ordered a lime green one and waited for it to arrive with childlike excitement. Would I be able to do the tricks I’d seen online? Should I film myself to see how I improve? Could I do it in my bedroom without trashing it? All these questions hummed around my mind.

The feeling you get from actually doing it is euphoric. These days, I mostly do it after work as a way to destress – I also find it rejuvenates me for the evening if I feel sluggish. Sometimes I’ll even take five minutes to stop and do it in the middle of the day if I’m feeling down or anxious. My friends still think I’m mad, but I’m all about embracing the silliness. Life is too short to be a ‘serious adult’ all the time.”

Play of choice: Lego

Janice Casey Bracken, 38, South Tipperary, Ireland

“As a chef, my job can be high pressure and tiring – late nights and busy shifts. This means on my days off, I crave something that allows me to fully disconnect and just relax. My son, who is 11, first introduced me to Lego. I would actually feel envious of the peaceful, happy state that would wash over him as he became consumed in what he was doing. One day a few months ago he said, ‘Why don’t you try it, Mammy?’ and so I did. At first, I was playing with him, but it soon became something all of my own. I’m into Star Wars, so I began buying Darth Vader and Starfighter kits online – you can get 18+ versions, which means the construction is more complex.

I switch my phone to ‘do not disturb’ when I start a session – I used to be on it constantly – which has helped me realise that nothing bad is going to happen while I’m away from it. The world won’t end, and I can pick things back up again in my own time. I don’t always have to be ‘on’. There is nothing quite like the feeling you get when you’re approaching the end of a build – a rush of enthusiasm, excitement, pride. My next day off is fast approaching and I know exactly how I’ll be spending it.”

One minute you can be playing tag, the next a game called capture the flag.

Play of choice: playground games

Samantha Doe, 31, London

“At 7pm every Tuesday, instead of going to the pub or to a gym class, I walk to the park and play a game of British bulldog, the classic playground game from my childhood. And I’m no rookie – this started seven years ago when I moved from Essex to London for a job, which was a pretty lonely, isolating time. I desperately wanted to make friends and have fun but was failing (I’d tried the gym, but people were barely interested in eye contact there, never mind chatting). Then I read about a games group called Rabble in a newspaper. ‘What have I got to lose?’ I asked myself, and so, one rainy Saturday morning, I decided to go. I met a huddle of people wearing hi-vis bibs, looking quite happy about the fact that they were soaking wet on a muddy field when they could be in bed, which I took as a good omen.

The games change every week. One minute you can be playing tag, the next a game called capture the flag. Last summer, we even did a slip and slide. It isn’t really about winning, rather the joy of doing it. If you lose a game, there’s no time to dwell because you’re too caught up thinking about the next one. I think of it as a state of mindful flow because, in that moment, when a ball is flying at you, nothing else matters and you’re able to shake off whatever energy you’ve brought into the session – it’s all about the now. And that’s a form of nostalgia I never want to give up.”

Play of choice: Animal Crossing

Emily Powell, 27, London

“They say that hunter gatherers are the happiest people on the planet because they have one task to fulfil a day and, trust me, it’s true. I know because there’s a virtual world where I do exactly that. On Animal Crossing, I spend my time blissfully meandering, collecting shells, harvesting trees and chatting to my landlord, who also happens to be a very cute raccoon.

Gaming was a big part of my childhood. I have visceral memories of hanging out with my brother in our parent’s house in Wales – him 10, me 13 – playing Animal Crossing and being super close. It wasn’t until we were separated because of the pandemic, and I had no idea when I would see him again, that I felt pulled back to that time, and I wanted to relive it. My boyfriend at the time had a Nintendo Switch and I quickly downloaded the game. Soon, I was in a world where life was much, much simpler and it seemed everyone else was enjoying this escapism, too. A bunch of my colleagues and I began sneaking end-of-day meetings in the diary to visit each other’s islands like naughty children. I still play it after a stressful day, and as something that transports me back to my childhood, why wouldn’t I indulge?”

Digital artwork: Justin Metz, Photography: Getty

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