Play – It’s Not Just For Children Anymore

I used to think play was simply not in my nature. I lean toward the studious, industrious, goal-setting-then-achieving type. Play seemed like something children did to pass the time until they were ready to pick up their life’s work and begin it. I’d outgrown it. And to be honest, I never gave this point of view much thought – it simply was.

And then I met Brene Brown. Or more accurately, I read her book “Gifts of Imperfection” and allowed it to rock my world. Right there in Chapter 7 – CULTIVATING PLAY AND REST –  aptly subtitled “Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self-Worth” she says this.

“A few years ago, I noticed in my research that wholehearted people — my term for men and women with the courage to be vulnerable and live their lives “all in” — shared something else, too: They goofed off. They spent time doing things that to me seemed frivolous, like gardening and reading. I couldn’t really wrap my head around it — were they slackers? Then one day, while I watched my kids jump on the trampoline in our backyard, it hit me: Wholehearted adults play.”

She cites the work of Dr. Stuart Brown who defines play in part as “time spent without purpose.” Seriously? Spend time? Without a purpose? Does. Not. Compute. Purpose is pretty much my life.

Nonetheless, she had my attention, and so I started to ponder this idea of play. It reminded me of a concept author Matthew Kelly teaches. He calls it “carefree timelessness,”  arguing that it’s something children instinctively grasp and yearn for from us. It’s what allows them to while away an afternoon tinkering with Legos or dressing and undressing dolls or gathering dandelions.

I started looking for pockets of carefree timelessness in my life – for glimpses that I hadn’t completely forgotten how to play. Slowly, I began to unearth the pattern of play in my life – it was there, but I was digging for it. Reading a magazine while drying my hair counts, but barely.

And then I went skiing.

We landed in Denver in a blizzard – predicted accumulation of more than 2 feet – and slogged through a slushy two-hour drive to Beaver Creek. I wasn’t sure it was smart to put my body on skis in those conditions after a long hiatus from the sport, but everyone we talked to from the waiters to the hotel staff acted like it was the best day of their lives (“24 inches of powder – it’s UNREAL”  “I was up there all morning and I can’t wait to get back up after work”). I allowed my mind to change.

Bright and early the next morning, snow still falling hard, we took the lift from our hotel, reached the top of the first run and took off. A little timidly at first, but then faster and faster as my muscle memory kicked in. And with that one act of flying down a mountain strapped to rented skis, my recollection of play came whooshing back with such force it nearly brought me to my knees in gratitude. I literally whispered the words “this…is…play” as I glided into the lift line to do it again. And again. And again.

How did I know it was play? I was fully present in the moment, had no sense of time elapsing, and tuned out all sorts of negative stimuli to continue the activity (did I mention we were in a bonafide blizzard?). Think about a six year old at the zoo on a sweltering day in July who doesn’t complain about the heat or the smell or the lack of snacks because he’s enraptured by the zebras. That’s play, friends. Pure and simple.

Skiing reminded me of what the fullest expression of play feels like for me (and it’s a feeling we’re chasing here – nothing more, nothing less) making play a little easier to spot in less dramatic settings in my everyday life. I’m on a scavenger hunt to discover and catalog these practices so I can do more of them. Because, as Brene Brown says, if you restrict play to vacations, it’s a mistake. Integrating the practice of playtime into our hectic, over-scheduled lives makes us healthier and stronger. It cultivates creativity,  improves relationships and reduces stress. Play isn’t limited to active pursuits or competitive sports, either. “Play is art, books, movies, music, comedy, flirting and daydreaming,” writes Dr. Brown.

I left Colorado energized, refreshed, and recommitted to building more play into my life. I’m letting go of the limiting belief that play is just for children…join me?



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