The great Nobel Prize winner, George Bernard Shaw, once wrote – we don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing. And we all remember the old adage of our youth that says, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. In fact, play is so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child. So why is it, that when we reach the ripe old age of 30, 50, 70 we forget just how important play is to life?
When I look into the sweet face of my newborn grandson as he twists his tiny mouth to mimic my own expressions, I am easily reminded how most of the great milestones we reached as children were learned through play. In our weekly play dates, my two-year-old granddaughter “sweeps” with a tiny broom and dust pan but she’s not getting a whole lot cleaned. She is, however, learning so much by the action itself. She’s picking up hand/eye coordination, a sense of responsibility to clean up after making a mess and an undeniable thrill of contributing to the world of grown up work. If I set her on a stool in front of a sink full of soapy water, she plays washing up the dishes with all the delight of kitten batting around a ball of yarn. We play “tea party” and “put the baby doll nite-nite” over and over and she never tires of it. Is she aware that she is learning how to care for someone other than herself by these games? Probably not, but the results are there nonetheless. . In a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics, “ …play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development.” Plus, it’s a whole lot of fun
When I was a child, I could play “office” for hours. I would twist my hair into a librarian’s bun, perch fake glasses at the end of my nose and push paper around on my grandfather’s desk. I “filed” important papers, addressed envelopes for bills and posted stamps with all the perceived authority of a CEO. I could spend an entire Sunday afternoon immersed in my world of pretend. In those rosy days of youth, I would curl up for hours, chewing on the eraser of my pencil and lost in my own world while I conjured up “poetry”. I imagined myself this generation’s Elizabeth Browning. I would run for the sheer thrill of hearing the ground slapping beneath my pink sneakers and because I loved how the wind blew my hair behind me like a yellow wedding veil. My bicycle was a magical horse that I would ride on wild adventures and disappear until hunger finally chased me home at sunset. I read, cradled in the branches of the front yard tree, lost in imaginary worlds for hours while breezes whispered softly around me. As a child I was a master of play.
As an adult, it’s interesting how similar my life is to the one I pretended as a little girl. I still play “office” for hours, except now my “play” has become “work” and, let’s face it; the thrill of putting stamps onto envelopes and filing bills is long gone. I ride my bicycle now, usually under duress, mainly because I want desperately to stay healthy and stave off a saggy backside as long as possible. I write, too, but it has become serious, concentrated work with an end result in mind and most of the time it’s about as fun as cleaning out the pantry. Even reading a book is something I do in the smoky hours at night so that I can relax enough to fall asleep.
Then one morning I woke up to discover that I felt heavy and sad but couldn’t place my finger on what had gone so terribly wrong. It’s simple. I’ve forgotten the therapeutic and sustaining power of play. Somewhere between washing the weekly laundry and paying the electric bill every month, I’ve lost connection with the sheer joy of losing myself in play. I have become dull, indeed. When we were children, we didn’t think about play. We just did it. So how, as an adult, do we embrace the play-starved child within and let go for an hour, an afternoon, an entire day? There are numerous books written about the subject from The Gift of Play: Why Adult Women Stop Playing And How To Start Again by Barbara Brannen to The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally by David Elkind (both available on Amazon.com) One way to reconnect with your playful self is actually as easy as writing down a list. Start by remembering a few things you can remember enjoying as a ten year old. Make a commitment to yourself to do one thing on that list every single day, even if it’s only for ten minutes and even if it’s only drawing a picture or coloring in a book. Continue to brainstorm and add to your “play” list and I can guarantee that just putting aside that ten minutes a day will do all kinds of wonders for your heart and mind.
Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a can of red Play-doh calling my name!