The Value of Play with TJ Matton

The Value of Play with TJ Matton

Feb 07, 2024

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You’re probably aware of the value of play for kids, but did you know that it’s just as important for adults? Today, I’m joined by TJ Matton, who helps people find enjoyment in the everyday, playful ways to manage stress, and empowering ways to greater fulfillment.

TJ Matton is a social worker, psychotherapist, coach, and educator. Through her business, The Playful Revolution, she helps adults learn to liberate their minds and bodies through play. 

Most people automatically associate play with children (or playing with kids). But play is a primal need of all humans, and TJ’s goal is to help adults re-engage their natural drive for play.


Why Do We Need Play?

Besides the fact that it’s enjoyable, play is a tool that we can use to regulate our nervous systems and manage our stress responses.

In her work with moms, TJ has explored how mom rage is related to a play-deprived state. When we yell and scream at our kids, it gives us a feeling of power and control. It puts us back into our bodies. 

But we can get these same feelings from play…without the wave of guilt, shame and embarrassment that often comes after an episode of mom rage. Play helps us release the pent-up energy in our bodies and shift out of an activated state more easily. 

We often think of being playful as silly or humorous. And while it can look this way, play is really about being interested, engaged, curious and connected. It can be physical, intellectual or in our imaginations. 

Even tasks like cooking can be playful, if you’re feeling engaged and creative in the process. 


Why Do We Stop Playing?

As kids, play is everything! So, what happened? 



For adults, play can bring up feelings of vulnerability, powerlessness or fear of failure.

It requires us to abandon power dynamics. We might have to change rules or adjust a game to even the playing field and make it playful and fun for everyone involved. 

And there is often some risk taking involved. The point of play is to test limits, like when you build the tallest tower you can, knowing that it will fall.  

This limit testing means that we are going to fail pretty much every time (and that’s what’s supposed to happen). But the older we get, the less acceptable we see failure to be. 

Instead, we can look at life from a place of curiosity and resilience. “My tower fell over, but that’s what’s supposed to happen. I didn’t do anything wrong. Now I get to try again. I wonder how tall I can get it next time?”


Previous experiences

Our learned response to play also plays a role in how we approach it as adults. 

As a child, were you often told that your play was too loud, big, chaotic or messy? Were there gender expectations put on your play? 


Gender differences

The majority of girls lose play between the ages of 8 and 11. 70% of girls drop out of sports between 7 and 10 years old. 

They start to shift focus to peer and family relationships and behavioral expectations of being well-mannered and kind. They are encouraged to get out of self-connection and prioritize others instead.


Types of Play

Most of us have an idea of what play “should” look like. TJ tells us that play isn’t something we have to go out and do. It’s more of a state we try to achieve. An experience that we feel within ourselves of feeling interested and engaged. 

Our play is like a blueprint of ourselves, and it is continuous throughout our lifetimes. This is so powerful because it means that the playful part of you is not gone. It is still there, waiting. And reconnecting to your preferred style of play feels like coming home to yourself.

TJ introduces the 8 play personalities outlined by Dr. Stewart Brown and what play typically looks like for some of these common personalities. 

Some examples are kinetic play, which uses the body; competitive play, which challenges the player to accomplish something within a set of rules; exploration; collecting things; and jokers who are drawn to humor and vibrancy.

She also highlights that some of us thrive as solo players, while others prefer parallel play or collaborative play. 


Obstacles to Play

If play is so good for us (and it’s enjoyable), why aren’t we doing it? 

TJ says that the biggest obstacles she sees are the expectations that we put on ourselves and expectations we feel from others

Those expectations are stressors that push the body down. Many of us have a story in our minds about how we “should” be. But where did that story come from? What if you weren’t always that way? What’s the story you would tell yourself (or think that others have about you) if you didn’t meet that expectation?

When it comes to parenting, there’s so much external pressure and powerlessness. It can feel heavy, hard and restrictive. But parenting can really be a place of play. 

A good place to start with overcoming this obstacle is asking yourself:

  • What expectations am I holding of myself
  • What expectations do I think other people have of me in this moment?
  • How can I give myself a little space here?

And when you’re feeling that pressure, there are also ways to make tasks on your to-do list feel more playful. Depending on your play style, that could look like moving your body, putting on music, organizing your to-do list, setting a timer or creating a story in which you are the hero.


How to Embrace Play as an Adult

If you're feeling stuck, that is super normal. TJ assures us that the first step is the hardest. As soon as you start to connect with your play bone, it will feed itself. 

She believes that reigniting play for adults is really about finding the lowest hanging fruit and figuring out which type of play is the easiest for us to access. 

You can start by thinking about what you connected with as a kid. Maybe a favorite color or activity. What is a way you could connect with that today? 

TJ gives the example of blue being someone’s favorite color as a child. Challenging them to notice how many blue things they see at the grocery store today can be a practice in curiosity and noticing that helps awaken the playful spirit.

When you understand what type of play comes most naturally to you, you can start to use small actions to soothe your nervous system (like during a Pause Break). Then, once you’re calm, it becomes a practice of self expression. Now that you’re feeling better, what does it mean to step into the world as a fuller and more embodied version of yourself?

Play is something that we can use to self-regulate and co-regulate, and it is also a practice of what it means to be a more liberated, expressive and authentic version of ourselves.


At the end of the day, all we have is time and energy, and we want to use those in a way that is meaningful to us so that we feel more fulfilled in our lives and we can offer a more fulfilled version of ourselves to our kids.

TJ believes that learning your own inherent ways of play and engaging in playfulness helps you learn organically how to manage your time, feel embodied and find purpose and meaning in everyday life. 

As you think about adding more play to your life, I’ll leave you with one of TJ’s favorite questions for moms she meets. If you had a free day where your kids were safe and everything in your home was taken care of, what would you do with it?


You’ll Learn:

  • The value of play - for kids and adults alike
  • Why we stop playing in the first place
  • How embracing play affects your parenting
  • Where to start if you’re feeling stuck


Connect with TJ: 


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