While adults will generally accept imaginative play as a natural mode of learning and mental-emotional healing for children, they are less likely to appreciate the value of play for themselves. In actuality, entering into a play-state - the experiential and embodied use of imagination - can be extremely beneficial for mental-emotional health in people of all ages.
For example, recent research shows that therapies involving the experiential use of the imagination (for example, role-plays), where emotions are safely contained, are particularly effective in re-patterning the neurological impacts of trauma. Furthermore, a number of developmental studies show that there is a high correlation between a child's capacity to engage in imaginary role-play, and his or her ability to solve real-life relationship problems. For one thing, role-play requires a person to step into another's shoes, an essential step in learning empathy. Additionally, use of the imagination stimulates cognitive development and problem-solving abilities, just as thinking things through makes it easier to complete a contemplated task.
There's also the factor of embodiment: engaging one's body in imaginative play opens more neural pathways to desired emotional or behavioral changes than does talk alone.
Drama therapy, which I offer through my practice, is one approach that applies all the benefits of imaginative play to the healing and growth of clients of all ages.
(Gary Raucher, MFT, RDT, is a Registered Drama Therapist who uses elements of play and the expressive arts in his work with children, adults, couples, families, and groups.)