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Inside Education and Health Sciences

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Play is a Priority

By Karen Long

In my years as a mental health therapist, I often asked my clients, "What brings you joy and how can you incorporate more joy into your life?" More joy leads to better stress management, which leads to better mental health and better relationships with self and others. 

With children, we generally characterize "joy" as "play." And in my seven years as a PLAY Project Therapist, I learned many methods, techniques and activities to help children with autism connect better with themselves and with the world by identifying opportunities for play.

Seeing the effectiveness of the techniques, I decided to use these same strategies with my own family to create better stress management and bring more to all of the roles I play in my life. 

I needed to learn how to play with myself. 

Yes, that's what I said, and no, that's not what I meant. Hear me out.

When you tell a child to "go play," you want them to do an activity that brings them joy. Ask a 5-year-old what they love and they — without hesitancy — will say something like candy, unicorns, flowers, hide-and-seek and their belly button. For some reason, listing things we love is hard for us grown-ups. We will say things like, "I love my family," and then mumble about the NFL or Netflix. 

So how do we learn how to play with ourselves? 

First, make a list of things you love AND truly enjoy — besides your family and friends. This is tough. But this list will become the basis of ways to play with yourself — ways to bring yourself joy and in turn improve your mental health.

After deep thought I have my list: 

  • Coffee — the smell, coffee shops, drinking it, sharing it with friends, the whole experience. 
  • Harry Potter — I joined an adult Harry Potter club (I'm a Slytherin — something I had to learn to accept, embrace and then be proud of).
  • The Harlem Globetrotters (yes, this is true) — As soon as I hear their song, I am filled with joy. I go every year, sometimes with my kids and sometimes not, because it brings ME joy! 

I play with myself as a priority, without guilt and without apology.

Playing with yourself is key to being happy with your life, and the ripple effect is striking. After I learned what brings me joy, this spread happiness out into my partnership and my roles as a mom, a friend and an employee. 

I like myself better. That isn't selfish, it's critical to establishing our position in relationships and in life. When you find your joy, this affects others and encourages them to find their joy. It is contagious. Without a doubt, I say play is the key to happiness.

Karen Long is a mental health therapist at Chaminade Julienne Catholic High School as part of the University of Dayton's Empowering Children with Hope and Opportunity (ECHO) program in the Center for Catholic Education.

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