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Playtime, it's not just for kids: This is why women need it more than ever.

As we begin to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, executive career coach Liz Bentley says we should all take a page out of a 5-year-old’s playbook.
Know Your Value founder and "Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski.
Know Your Value founder and "Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski.Ann Edelberg

When you think about playing, you might conjure up memories from childhood, like digging around in the sandbox or playing a game of tag with friends. But when was the last time you took time to truly play?

If you can’t remember, you may be missing out on some serious benefits, especially as we begin to come out of the Covid-19 pandemic, which women bore the brunt of. When adults make time to play, it not only brings joy but is crucial for problem solving, creativity, sleep quality, brain function, confidence and relationships. As an executive career coach, I’ve noticed my clients having bouts of depression, or just feeling exhausted and burned out as a result of the challenging past year.

One solution I recommend is to make time for play and real fun. And while your idea of this today probably doesn’t involve sand, a bucket and a shovel, here are three ways you can incorporate your own version of play into your daily lives:

Understand the power of play.

Learning to play again can be harder than it sounds. While play is intuitive to some, it is not to others. I have found during this pandemic that many of my clients have run away from their personal lives (or lack thereof) and instead buried themselves in work.

It makes sense. Work is always a good excuse to stay busy. Society accepts it, and it makes people feel productive and responsible. However, too much work creates stress, anxiety, exhaustion and ultimately a boring person. Someone who can only talk and think about work is very one dimensional, lacks innovation, and can seem uninteresting and inflexible. As developmental psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith explains it, “The opposite of play… is not work, it is depression.”

Liz Bentley is the founder and president of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs.
Liz Bentley is the founder and president of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs.Anthony Scutro

When people don’t regularly play, they often don’t even know what they are missing. Or, they don’t know where to even start. After all, it’s not easy to say, “I don’t know how to have fun.” I find most people would rather just keep working than admit their struggle.

Understanding your play personality is a great way to start. Stuart Brown, a leading researcher on play, has identified eight types of play personalities, which include being a joker, competitor, storyteller, artist, collector, explorer, director and kinesthete (playing through movement).

Think back to your childhood: what types of play did you gravitate to? Sports? Writing? Simply swinging on a playground? Embracing what is inside of you will lead you to present day activities that bring those same feelings of joy. This also can help you avoid the things you don’t truly enjoy.

Create opportunities for play.

Creating opportunities for play is also not easy. I have had to work hard to convince clients to shut off their phones and get away from work. It’s not necessarily because they love work so much, but because they don’t know how to use their free time. And I don’t mean activities like working out or cleaning a closet. While those activities may have some value to your life, it does not qualify as play. Play is an activity that brings you happiness without expecting anything specific in return.

Take some time and do a play inventory by asking yourself:

What activities do you lose track of time doing?

When was the last time this happened?

What’s getting in the way of your play?

What is the storyline you need to change in your head?

This last piece may be the most challenging to uncover. We all have reasons why we avoid certain activities and create storylines around it. For example, you’re a busy working parent who feels guilty about time spent away from your children, so you may forgo a weekly tennis game because you feel it’s a waste of precious time. In this case, you need to realize, the benefits (lowered stress, better sleep, etc.) will also be passed down to those surround you.

Jump in and enjoy.

To get play back into your life, try the following:

Define real play for yourself. There are many ways to play. Explore your unique mix of play personalities and link it to your present day life.

Create time. Schedule a real vacation or vacation day(s) and don’t work.

Collaborate. Find play partners who will help inspire you to commit the time.

Stop distraction. Turn off your phone and live in the playful moment for the full effect.

Forgive yourself. You might be bad at it at first. It may be hard to turn your work mind off, or keep the guilt from seeping in. This is normal and you will master play in time.

Practice. You can get good at play, but it means doing it regularly.

Play is essential to our lives. With play, you will see your stress recede and you will approach your work and personal life with renewed energy. Embrace play for a better you in the months and years to come.

Liz Bentley is the founder and president of Liz Bentley Associates, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development programs. She is a nationally recognized keynote speaker and executive coach to top leaders and teams across a broad range of industries. She has a new series "Find Your Joy," which has the goal of becoming the best version of yourself by re-engaging in play.