The Importance of Play in Coping with Chronic Illness

Katie Willard VirantSource: Katie Willard Virant

“Nothing lights up the brain like play.” ~Dr. Stuart Brown

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP, 2018) recently released a clinical report entitled “The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children.” The AAP emphasizes that play is vitally important to development and overall health. Play’s many benefits include both the promotion of brain structure and activity and also the regulation of the body’s stress response. The importance of play is not limited to young children, either. Research shows that play is beneficial for adults as well (Brown, 2008).

Why Play Matters

The AAP defines play as “an activity that is intrinsically motivated, entails active engagement, and results in joyful discovery.” We play from the time we are infants exchanging smiles, gazes, and coos with our parents. The AAP calls this “serve and return” play, in which we learn reciprocity, mutuality, and the joy of being both connected (“I affect you and you affect me”) and separate (“While we enjoy each other, we have distinct minds”). As we grow, we manipulate objects with our hands - rattles, blocks, and balls; crayons, clay and paint. We listen to, tell and eventually read stories, and so we play with what is real and what is make-believe. We may participate on a sports team or in an orchestra, and we experience what it means to play with a group. We may be a collector - of stamps, of coins, of rocks, of comic books - and we feel the thrill of knowledge, possession and passion. We may enjoy the outdoors and how our senses awaken at the sights, sounds and smells of the natural world.

Ask your children three "you" questions every day. The art of conversation is an important social skill, but parents often neglect to teach it. Get a kid going with questions like, "Did you have fun at school?"; "What did you do at the party you went to?"; or "Where do you want to go tomorrow afternoon?"

When we play - in any of the ways outlined above - we grow. We learn about taking risks, pushing limits and coping with frustration and failure. We learn to problem solve, to collaborate, to be creative. We connect to the people with whom we play. We also expand our sense of self, being able to say confidently, “I am a person who likes THIS type of play. I am a person who comes alive when I do THAT activity.”

How to Play as an Adult

What do you remember about playing as a child? What activities did you enjoy? Did you play inside or outside? With whom did you play? At what times of day did you play? How did you feel when you played? According to play researcher Stuart Brown, remembering our “play history” is an important step in developing our adult experiences of play. Our history provides us with clues as to what we may find enjoyable in our adult lives. Do you remember yourself tromping through the woods in all seasons? Perhaps a hike this weekend would awaken those old feelings of wonder and joy you felt as a child. As a child, did you love to curl up with a book on the sofa? Maybe it’s time for a trip to the library and an afternoon dedicated to losing yourself in a story. Did you love to draw? Buy yourself some fresh pencils and paper and experience the delight of artistic creativity.

When we were children, we had “recess” and “playdates” - time set aside expressly for the purpose of playing. As adults, we likewise can give ourselves permission to set aside time for play. One of my favorite “playdates” is to take myself to the symphony to hear music. If I’ve pre-purchased my ticket, I’m less likely to allow family and work responsibilities to interfere with my recess time. Paradoxically, I’ve learned to take my scheduled play time seriously and protect it from interruption.

Warn children about the importance of privacy and the dangers of predators and sexting. Teens need to know that once content is shared with others, they will not be able to delete or remove it completely, and includes texting of inappropriate pictures. They may also not know about or choose not to use privacy settings, and they need to be warned that sex offenders often use social networking, chat rooms, e-mail, and online gaming to contact and exploit children.

It’s also important to weave play into our daily lives, creating “play moments” that cultivate fun. I keep a jar of colored pens on my desk at work, as writing notes in sky blue or plum purple makes me happy. I also knead play-doh as I read email on my computer. A text group I’m in (Shout out to my Amigas!) sends funny memes and cartoons throughout the day, providing laughs between clinical sessions. A quick walk outside on a particularly busy day can relieve tension and give my brain and body a much-needed play break.

Playing While Chronically Ill

It’s difficult to play when we feel sick. Our bodies hurt; our brains are filled with anxiety and worry; and there doesn’t seem to be much to celebrate. This is exactly when we need play the most. Quiet play that doesn’t require too much energy works well. Listening to music, reading a book, or doing a crossword puzzle are my standard go-tos. Even if you’re more a fan of active play, there are still ways to incorporate it into your life while feeling ill. For example, I may not be able to play tennis anymore, but I look forward to watching Wimbledon on television (and eating strawberries and cream while doing so) each year. While I experience a sense of loss in being unable to continue to define myself as a tennis player, I feel excitement and pleasure as I watch on t.v. I can play vicariously. Similarly, I’m never going to be able to take rustic trips into beautifully wild places. But I’ve watched a lot of travel documentaries that have allowed me to experience faraway adventures from the comfort of my sofa. I have been able to play.

Take charge. Children crave limits, which help them understand and manage an often confusing world. Show your love by setting boundaries so your kids can explore and discover their passions safely.

Have you ever noticed that small children often will forego the toys they receive as gifts in favor of the boxes in which they came? A box can be a fort, a hat, a chair, a treasure chest, a canvas for art . . . and anything else we will it to become. Watch a child with a box and you will see creative, passionate, free play. Sometimes we who live with chronic illness don’t get the toys that others receive. But we get the boxes. And we can play with those boxes and make worlds from those boxes and feel joy, excitement and pleasure as we interact with those boxes. Wishing all of my chronically ill readers a holiday season filled with potential and play. What will you create with your boxes? Feel free to share in the comments section below.