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Adults can use play to improve their mental health

Star Tribune - 6/11/2019

‘If growing up means it would be beneath my dignity to climb a tree, I’ll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up --

not me!’ Maybe Peter Pan was on to something. Science now confirms that maintaining a sense of play -- making a point to have fun -- is good for grown-ups, from college students to senior citizens. Studies have shown that a playful mind-set is associated with lower stress, greater life satisfaction and happiness, more participation in social activities, and greater productivity, creativity and cooperation in work settings.

That’s why places like the Minnesota Children’s Museum are giving adults permission to not act their age. Two years ago, the St. Paul museum launched its Adults@Play events. These nights, the museum is closed to kids so people 21 and older can zoom down the giant slide and launch pingpong balls at each other while enjoying an adult beverage. The museum has held four adult nights since its 2017 reopening after a $30 million expansion and renovation, with the belief that adults can benefit from open-ended and creative play just as much as kids. Each adult night in the museum has drawn 500 to 800 people, according to Barbara Hahn, museum vice president of growth and innovation. To the surprise of the museum staff, even exhibits geared toward the youngest children were embraced by adults eager to play pretend.

“They’ve got the fire helmet on and the hose and they’re saying, ‘Where’s the fire?’?” says Bob Ingrassia, the museum’s vice president of external relations. “They step right into that, and you wouldn’t even know they’re big people,” Hahn says. “We see a lot of joy and delight just going down the slide.”

At the most recent Adults@Play in March, grown-ups -- some wearing neckties from a day at the office -- grabbed beers at the bars set up on each level of the museum and made slime, slid on carpet skates, negotiated a laser maze, blew bubbles and giggled at each other spinning in tilty chairs.

Several attendees said play night gave them the freedom to act like a kid without the intimidating presence of actual kids.

“I love the museum, but it’s weird if I come to a kid’s museum without a kid,” says Michael Tilleman, a 31-year-old Minneapolis resident.

“It’s just fun. It’s good stress relief. ,” says Alissa Mathisen, 23, of Savage. “You can play with toys and not be judged by kids.”

Anita Anderson, a 58-year-old Coon Rapids resident, says playing at the museum made her feel like a 10-year-old again.

“You’ve got to remember to play. You lose that so fast,” she says.

Minneapolis psychotherapist Diane Brady-Leighton uses beach balls, coloring books, dance and poetry in workshops to help adults see how play and creativity improve mood and adaptability.

Humans experience tens of thousands of thoughts each day, many of them fears about the future or regrets about the past, she says. But play encourages a mindful “flow” state, joyfully focused on the present moment.

Brady-Leighton, 60, practices what she preaches. Recently, when she was dealing with the death of her parents, she started learning the ukulele. Playing it gave her moments of joy at a time of deep loss.

“It was touching and supporting my health in a way other things weren’t,” she says.


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