Every parent has probably suffered from this type of near catastrophe. My husband and I realized—too late—that we had forgotten to pack toys and books to entertain our older daughter, then about five, during a long drive. Our guilt soon turned to amusement tinged with open admiration. She solved the problem her own way: her feet instantly became two friendly characters cavorting together across her mental stage, with her narrating out loud for our benefit.

The drive to play is strong. But who knew that goofing off as children could be so constructive when it comes to establishing the long-term mental health of adults? As Melinda Wenner writes in the cover story, “The Serious Need for Play,” frolicking in unstructured free play (as opposed to planned and rules-based activities such as chess clubs or after-school sports teams) is particularly critical for youngsters. Imaginary play and tumbling around in the sort of mock battles that my parents used to call “roughhousing” are both key for children to successfully acquire social skills, reduce stress, improve cognition and develop problem-solving abilities. Grown-ups can benefit from play breaks, too. We just have to remember to set the stage for our own fun times.

A different kind of performance issue, stage fright, is a common demon for many of us, causing us to seize up just when we most want to do well. In her feature, “Avoiding the Big Choke,” Elizabeth Svoboda gives tips for successfully navigating through those difficult moments. One flaw we all fall prey to, as she explains, is simply thinking too hard.

While you’re tuning up your gray matter, read the article “Six Ways to Boost Brainpower,” by Emily Anthes. Our malleable minds take well to proper mental care and feeding. To a great extent, as science tells us, we are what we make of ourselves.

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Play Time".