Rediscovering Play

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“There’s no one with intelligence in this town except that man over there playing with the children, the one riding the stick horse. He has keen, fiery insight and vast dignity like the night sky, but he conceals it in the madness of child’s play.” – Rumi

(A version of this article is now featured on Elephant Journal! Check it out!)

Remember when we looked forward to each summer with a full-body ache that made the last days of school drag on and on? My childhood summers were made up of endless days of sun, swimming, bicycles, and friends. Each day I put on a bathing suit under clothes. Immediate plans to swim weren’t necessary as chance would have me jumping in the lake at least once that day. I remember summer afternoons sitting beside small streams, or even ditches, watching the minnows dart. I could get lost in the clear water. I caught turtles with my next-door neighbor just to feel their shells and claws before watching them disappear below the surface. I would watch the baby ducks follow single file behind their mothers while quietly longing to keep one as a pet. I had a secret hiding place in a nearby wood. I scrambled down a steep bluff to a tree growing straight out of the side of the rocks and curving straight again towards the sky like the letter ‘J’. I would lay here, as in a recliner, and read book after book over the noisy stream below. This place was my Terabithia, my place where no one could find me.

As we get older, more responsible, more goal oriented, summers start to fly by. We have plans to get out more, to get some sun, to go camping. Maybe we do get out once or twice, or a weekend a month. This is adulting, right? These days I find myself constantly on a timer, like the mom in the playground tapping her foot. “Ok, I know you’re having a good time, but we should go in 15 minutes,” she says. Long gone is the freedom to wander, count clouds, make forts, climb trees, or pick-up a game of football.

Somewhere between the days of my youth and now, I have forgotten to play. My world filled with deadlines and constantly growing stacks of scientific journal articles to read or to write. Each workday brought a new crisis, only to find that most issues were the result of poor management and invented problems. Evening and weekends were opportunities to finally catch up on emails or at best, a leisure activity with emails looming in the background of my thoughts. We are taught to keep our heads down and work hard – this is the only way to get ahead. Society rewards us for going the extra mile, staying an hour later at the office, working those weekends. In the best cases, we are given performance awards or an atta-boy for our self-sacrifice and hard work. Worst case this is expected and anything less means we aren’t trying hard enough.

I’m certainly not saying that hard, honest work is bad (I feel great after a job well done), but I believe that living to make a living undermines our potential. As a result, the months, years, and even decades seem to fly by.

By constantly achieving no matter the cost, emotions such as worry, anxiety, and fear overwhelmed the carefree, fun, and adventurous parts of myself. Success and failure were defined by other people’s expectations of me. Each milestone reached was immediately followed by striving for the next, and yet I could never be quite good enough. This realization lead to recognition, introspection, and then to personal growth. I began to ask, how I can break the cycle?

One method to breaking the old patterns is “play”. It’s not the miracle fix to everything, but what a fun place to start! This summer I took a bold move; I quit my job as a federal scientist to remember how to play. But we don’t all need to take such drastic measures as I did! We can start by remembering how we feel when we let ourselves off the hook. To allow ourselves to just be, without doing or accomplishing anything. Here are some practical tips for all of us:

  • Create a Play Corner: A good friend and colleague, Hilary, created a play corner in her apartment. She has board games and puzzles and Legos and coloring books. Just a glance at the play corner can be a reminder to smile more and relax.
  • (Re)Discover Music: Pick up that musical instrument you played when you were a kid. You may find that as an adult, taking lessons and practicing every day is done with joy and missing the resentment you may have felt as a child. I gave up music during graduate school when one has no time for hobbies. Picking up my guitar again stirred up something deep in my lower stomach, and I realized how important music is to my life. On this trip, Jason and I are playing a game. We wrote down a list of musical genres and then a list of life topics. We randomly paired them and are writing fun songs – a great way to flex those creative muscles!
  • Go Down a Water Slide: And then do it again. Bring your goggles and diving sticks or try and stand up on a raft and laugh as you clumsily do a belly smacker back into the water. Swim for fun and not just for fitness.
  • Dance: One of the fastest ways to remember play is to dance like no one is watching. You may start alone in your living room, or go out for a night on the town with friends. Partner dancing is another good option; lessons can give you the basic steps needed to start social dancing. Even if you go with a spouse or a partner, dancing with everyone in the room is lighthearted play (and good exercise).
  • Go Camping: Being outdoors for an extended amount of time is a fast way to get out of busy mode. There are essential chores, but after cooking and cleaning the other 22 hours of the day can be spent in any way you like. This can help you remember how you like to play.
  • Free Paint: Paint with your fingers, a brush, a spray can, or whatever suits your fancy. You can even find a local studio with an evening class paired with wine or cocktails. Just let go of the outcome and see what takes shape.
  • Join a Sports Team/Club: Even if you’ve never played a sport before, most clubs are welcoming to beginners. Rugby? Why not? Ultimate Frisbee? Many towns have clubs or online meet-ups with organized hikes, bikes, climbs and paddles for beginners and experts alike.
  • Get on the Floor with your Kids: Those with children are constantly surrounded by small sources of play. Our busy lives can keep us from wholly engaging, however. Letting go of calendars and to-do lists by getting on our hands and knees with the little ones can be the entry way into a fantastic and creative world. Don’t have kids? Treat your friends to a night out and borrow their children for an evening.
  • Seek Out Fun Friends: Sometimes we all need a little motivation and few things are better than a friend who brings out the play in us. These people are keepers.

Summer is a great time to remember how to play. Waylon Lewis, The Editor-In-Chief of the mindfulness publication, Elephant Journal, has some great tips for busy people to reconnect with summer. Let’s all join a challenge to play more!

I welcome you to share your ideas for play in the comments section below.

4 thoughts on “Rediscovering Play

  1. So glad you are getting to play Amanda! I always wonder why I live in a town where the dancing opportunities (salsa, blues, funk) are so few — and what a shame to deprive myself of something that makes me smile inside and out. I also play at SunDog CrossFit with my fellow classmates (who would have thought that one could get a true endorphin high from lifting weights?!). But my favorite kind of playing (which I have very little time for it seems) involves getting out into the woods on the ridge behind our house and oogling the bark of birch, aspen and cottonword, and many forms of fungus, or traipsing around the muskeg hemlock meadows and forests of Prince William Sound. I am hugely entertained by the intoxicating skunk cabbage, in all it’s growth stages, to the minute Drosera carnivorous plants, and the feisty Rufous Hummingbirds that defend the bird feeder. I could spend years down there playing. Carl and I will soon get to play and we are truly looking forward to a break from our jobs. Miss you!

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  2. I could not agree more with this if I had written it myself! I’m so happy your letting yourself off the hook like this. It has changed my life to stop valuing multitasking and start valuing single tasking. To say yes to play and fun as a habit. I was finding myself filling my very precious alone/down time with reading more brain churning books (which I love, don’t get me wrong), but allowing myself to just be… Not consuming anything (noise, written word, interaction, etc) and sometimes even making something myself. I woke up the other day and just wrote a poem. Like it’d been sitting in my mind all this time ready to come out. Drawing with pastels with the kids. Creating as a means of dumping my brain has done so much for my mental health, sense of richness of life, and fun! Playing outside is a must. Also, even for those of us not quite as untethered as we once were, just picking something new to do maybe once a week or month. A new place in the city to explore, a different park or trail, whatever! Changing my attitude from “we are going to _____ in order to ______” to one that’s more like “let’s go here and see what happens.” It’s been years of intentional changes to shake my previously task driven type A self. It feels good.

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  3. Wonderful reminders Mandy! We all need to play every once in a while! We shouldn’t have to wait for vacation to enjoy ourselves. Glad you are embarking on this wonder adventure!

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  4. Lovely – keep up the fine example and the proselytizing!
    “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” George Bernard Shaw

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