Kids at Play

Patient Engagement: What Does Play Have to Do with It?

Stuart Brown, a physician by background and founder of the National Institute for Play studies play for a living.

And what he’s learning has a direct impact on our ability to engage people to improve their well-being.

As children, we play all the time. No one had to teach us; we just did it. And through play we discovered key insights about social interactions, how the world works and how we relate to it. “At some time, as we get older,” Dr. Brown writes in his book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, “we are made to feel guilty for playing.”

Play is instrumental to survival. In his research, Dr. Brown has found studies among animals “that bears that played the most were the ones that survived the best.”

He adds that “we are built for play. The impulse to play is internally generated.” He describes play as “a state of mind rather than an activity” but “an activity can also induce the emotional state of play.” For example, reading a book, going to the theatre, and watching a movie are all activities that induce play.

He’s found that “learning and memory also seem to be fixed more strongly and last longer when learned in play.” Play is powerful. “Most obviously, it is intensely pleasurable. It energizes us and enlivens us. It eases our burdens. It renews our natural sense of optimism and opens us up to new possibilities.”

Research shows that playing video games can help improve people’s sense of well-being, especially for seniors. A study by North Carolina State University found that older adults who play video games report a higher state of well-being compared to those who don’t play games.

There are some lessons here for us in building better patient engagement. How can we build a sense of play into our interactions with people in the second half of life? If we are ‘built to play’ and learn better when we are engaged in play, then how can we bring those elements into our work with seniors?

Dr. Brown states that “in most cases, play is a catalyst.” It can help us transform, transition, learn, change and adapt. These are all critical elements in helping our clients improve their well-being.

So what can you do about it? Here are just a few ideas:

Each of us has what Dr. Brown calls our own play personality – discover your client’s play personality. He’s found 8 different play profiles – from story teller to collector to explorer.

  • Create a playful environment.
  • Develop an app – Apple and Android were onto something when they created the app capabilities on their devices. And games are some of the top downloaded apps.
  • Create a contest.
  • Make a quiz.
  • Brainstorm with some colleagues (that is also a form of play!).

It can start simple. But if we want better engagement, we could do well to learn the power of play.