3 Reasons Why Families That Play Together Stay Together

Growing up in a family that lived by the philosophy “work first, play later,” Saturdays were nearly always reserved for household chores and yard work. One Saturday morning, however, my siblings and I asked our parents if we could spend the day together at a local waterpark. Fully expecting the answer to be no, we were shocked and elated when the answer turned out to be yes. We all enjoyed this spontaneous activity, and have agreed since then that it was one of the most cherished family events we can remember.

Why did this simple experience prove to be so unforgettable for our family? Was it the sheer novelty of the event, or was it due to something else entirely?

The answer, it turns out, can be traced to a common saying that is both doctrinally and scientifically valid: “Families that play together stay together.” In “The Family: A Proclamation to the World”—published 20 years ago by the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—it states that successful marriages and families are built not only upon principles of faith, love, and work (among others), but also on “wholesome recreational activities.”[1] Adding further light to this prophetic statement, a large body of scientific evidence has identified three key reasons why families that play together stay together. 

#1: Families that prioritize play have greater cohesion. Wholesome recreational activities allow family members to take a respite from the demands of everyday life and to focus on things they have in common. In turn, this allows close bonds to form between family members. However, contrary to what many parents believe, research shows that it is not the “big” activities such as summer vacations that have the strongest impact on family cohesion, but rather, the everyday, low-cost, home-based activities that families do on a recurring basis.[2] For example, some families choose to have a game night each week or play basketball in their driveway for a few minutes each day. In my family, we make pizza and watch a movie with our children most Friday nights—which means we have seen Frozen and Cars more times than we care to admit! According to family scientists, these seemingly ordinary but frequently held activities help meet the needs that all families have for stability and structure, and consequently, build greater family cohesion.

#2: Families that prioritize play are better at communicating with each other. Family communication is particularly important in today’s world, as there are numerous demands and distractions that keep families from interacting with one another. There are also invisible impediments to family communication, such as hurt feelings or a lack of trust. Interestingly, however, research shows that these and other communication barriers tend to be removed when family members play together. Studies have found, for instance, that families that participate together in outdoor recreation activities subsequently report more frequent family interactions, elevated levels of trust, and greater confidence to resolve family conflicts.[3] [4] The key, however, is to choose activities that get family members talking to each other. For my family, that means that after watching a movie on Friday night, we might do a family hike the next morning—and put away our smartphones as we do so.

#3: Families that prioritize play are better at adapting to new challenges. In addition to having needs for stability and structure, families also have needs for novelty and challenge, and research suggests that by meeting these needs, family members are better able to adapt to new and challenging events. Family scholars suggest, therefore, that families should occasionally plan activities that involve learning new things and stretching present capabilities.[5] For example, families that love going to sporting events could try attending a music or arts event. For other families, it might mean learning and developing a new skill, such as fly fishing. My wife and I occasionally plan family field trips to obscure towns in Texas in order to learn more about their history. We then challenge our kids to remember what they learned about the particular town we visited. The key is to occasionally leave the house and do an activity that you would not normally do on a given day—and make it a fun learning experience. 

In summary, while it is true that faith, love, work, and other related principles are essential to building strong families, parents occasionally overlook the fact that having fun is also critical for strengthening families. So, rather than putting family play time on the back burner, make it a priority. After all, families that play together stay together.

Stephen Courtright is an assistant professor in the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University, where he teaches and conducts research in the area of organizational behavior. He grew up in DeForest, Wisconsin and Kuna, Idaho and served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Concepcion, Chile from 2002-2004. He graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho with a B.S. in Accounting and the University of Iowa with a Ph.D. in Business Administration. He and his wife, Nicole, met when they were six years old and grew up together as close friends. They married in 2004 and are the proud parents of three (almost four) children.

[1] See https://www.lds.org/topics/family-proclamation.
[2] Zabriskie, R. B., & McCormick, B. P. (2001). The Influences of Family Leisure Patterns on Perceptions of Family Functioning. Family Relations, 50(3), 281-289.
[3] Huff, C., Widmer, M.A., McCoy, K., & Hill, B. (2003). The influence of challenging outdoor recreation on parent-adolescent communication. Therapeutic Recreation Journal, 37(1), 18-37.
[4] Well, M.S., Widmer, M.A., & McCoy, J.K. (2004). Grubs and grasshoppers: Challenge-based recreation and the collective efficacy of families with at-risk youth. Family Relations, 53(3), 326-333.
[5] Zabriskie et al. (2001)


  1. Great article Steve, couldn't agree more. It is definitely way too easy to let chores and work completely eat up all of your free time and weekends. I need to remember to more frequently set that stuff aside and take a few moments here and there each week to make sure to play with the kids and create memories.

    Your article reminds me of a poem that a friend of mine wrote titled "I Wish My Daddy Was A Dog."(http://www.leany.com/dog.htm). It is about a boy who tells his dad that he wish he was a dog, because the dog always has time to play with the boy. As a dad, it is hard to read without getting emotional.

  2. Thanks, Boyd! I'll have to read that poem. Great to hear from you -- we sure miss you guys!