Turn Thanksgiving family time into playtime

When was the last time you played? Just for fun. If you can't remember, maybe use the Thanksgiving holiday to inject a little play into the proceedings.

Most of us these days do an activity in order to “get something out of it.” We run to stay in shape and go to Zumba to burn calories. That's the thing about play. It exists for itself. There's no “there” you're trying to get to. Think about it: Children don't run because they want to get in shape. They run for the sheer joy of it.

But just because there's no goal doesn't mean there's no purpose. A small study reported that, among college students at least, “playful individuals reported lower levels of perceived stress than their less playful counterparts…” and “were less likely to employ negative, avoidant and escape-oriented strategies.”

Translation: Playful people are less likely to use things like alcohol and drugs to relieve stress and anxiety.

Pets are fun to play with. I romp with my two King Charles spaniels. They're not trying to lose weight when they play, and I find it restful to just be in the moment with them. Children and grandchildren are another source of play. When you get an invitation to play Legos, Barbies or basketball, go for it.

You can also build play into your everyday life, whether or not you have kids. You know that saying, “Dance as if no one is looking?” Turn off your inner-critic (the little voice that tells you you are a terrible dancer!), put on some bouncy music and move. A friend of mine likes to pretend she's a ballerina when she's watching “The Nutcracker” during the holidays — and believe me, she's no ballerina.

Sometimes it's hard to remember what we played in childhood. After all, that was a long time ago! It might be helpful to sit with your memories. Try to see yourself playing as a child and then think about an adult alternative. Did you play cowboys? Maybe you can take a trail ride. Did you like Play-Doh? You might enjoy a pottery class or baking bread. Did you love climbing trees? An indoor rock-climbing gym could be just the thing.

It also depends on your preferred style of play. What sounds like fun to me may be a nightmare for you. (Karaoke? No thanks!)

Note that most of these ideas are for some form of physical play, not for brain games like crossword puzzles and Sudoku. Those can be fun, too, and there's some evidence they keep our brains active to stave off age-related cognitive issues. But it's the physical activity that will get your endorphins cooking and boost your mood.

One more thing about play: Don't feel you have to share it with your social media pals.

“Social media makes it easy to buy into this notion that if you don't post it, did it really happen?” says Meredith Sinclair, a former schoolteacher and author of “Well Played: The Ultimate Guide to Awakening Your Family's Playful Spirit.”

“It's very important that we have moments of play all for ourselves that we don't tell anyone about and we don't post about,” she told The New York Times. Not worrying about your Instagram post will let you enjoy the moment.

Play is not only an action but an attitude, and a habit you can cultivate. The late Brian Sutton-Smith, a pioneering play researcher, wrote that play involves “the willful belief in acting out one's own capacity for the future.”

“The opposite of ‘play' isn't ‘work,' ” he wrote. “It's depression.”

So, when your family gets together (safely) for Thanksgiving this year, go ahead and play in whatever way suits your family's style. That might mean a game of Monopoly or gin rummy, or it might mean an afternoon in the backyard playing touch football. You won't just be playing, you'll be rebuilding family relationships, a good follow-up to the non-Thanksgiving we had last year.

• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for 30+ years, she is founder of NShore Patient Advocates ( She is offering a free, 30-minute phone consultation by calling (312) 788-2640 to make an appointment.

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