July 28 Issue

Diane Harris

Deputy Editor

Play is not just for kids. As the nation grapples with an epidemic of loneliness and Americans now work more hours than a 14th century peasant, a growing body of scientific research shows that play is as fundamental to grown-up physical and mental health as it is to children. This week's cover story explores the latest findings and solutions. As one expert put it: "People need more joy in their lives."

"No one has measured the effect on neurotransmitters if you don't play. But there is a reasonable biological parallelism between sleep deficiency and play deficiency, which is why I think play is a public health necessity. Play deficiency, from my standpoint, is a very real phenomenon." - Dr. Stuart Brown, psychiatrist and founder of the National Institute of Play.

Neuroscientists, educators and psychologists like Hirsh-Pasek know that play is as an essential ingredient in the lives of adults as well as children. A weighty and growing body of evidence—spanning evolutionary biology, neuroscience and developmental psychology—has in recent years confirmed the centrality of play to human life. Not only is it a crucial part of childhood development and learning but it is also a means for young and old alike to connect with others and a potent way of supercharging creativity and engagement. Play is so fundamental that neglecting it poses a significant health risk.And yet Americans have been squeezing playtime out of their busy schedules for years—the average adult now logs more hours at work than a 14th-century English peasant. Although this trend was underway long before the pandemic struck, the two years of fear, illness and death that followed drove the nation's level of loneliness and isolation to intolerable levels. Hirsh-Pasek, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a bestselling author, thinks the ordeal may have pushed already work-weary Americans over the brink—to the point where they are finally revising their attitudes toward work and play for the better. "People need joy in their lives," she says.

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