This essay came at the perfect time. Just before I opened the email from my sweet friend Lauren (who I asked to write an essay on any topic she'd like), I was wallowing in a puddle of self-pity about how I’m just so tired of living the same day over and over—wake up, play with Julia, breastfeed all day, cook, clean, go on a walk, repeat. That’s it. I’ve found myself thinking, “I just want to feel like I’ve accomplished something.” Then, I read this essay about the importance of play, for children and adults. It struck me that all the playing I’m doing with my toddler—sticker books, sensory bins, Play-Doh, dolls, sidewalk chalk— feels like what I do to simply keep her happy throughout the day, but it’s actually shaping her brain and strengthening our relationship. Will I choose to wholeheartedly join in her play, or will I sneak a glance at Instagram or check my email every moment I can? When both babies are sleeping, do I choose to spend my time doing something I love, or do I escape into my phone, reading different versions of the same news over and over? Lauren helped remind me that I can choose to white-knuckle it through this time, or I can give myself and my family the space and grace to have fun. Just as it’s OK to grieve during this season, it’s also perfectly fine to just play. Thank you, Lauren!
Guest essay by Lauren Center
Play is a thing that kids do, right? We love to watch kids play. We love to hear them laugh (isn’t that just the best sound in the world?). We wonder at their imagination.
We also know play is good for kids. We buy them toys. We make them play outside instead of sitting inside and consuming movies and iPads all day. We know it’s good for kids to use their hands and move their bodies and expend creative energy, and research unquestioningly agrees.
But at some point, we all stop playing. Why? Does play ever stop being good for us?
Every single time I play with kids, I am struck by how fun it is and how good it feels. Playing feels refreshing and life-giving to me. I feel this same way whenever I climb a tree, run through a sprinkler, paddle a canoe, or throw a ball for my dog. These kinds of activities feel different than pretty much anything else I do.
The key difference between play and everything else is that there is no point to play. Play is purposeless. It isn’t mindless, but it is inherently pointless. Kids don’t play to get something done; they play just for the sake of playing. I think the main reason we stop playing is because it doesn’t accomplish anything. At some point, we learn to structure every second of our lives. We begin to idolize productivity and efficiency. We don’t do things that don’t get things done. Play is not productive. Play is not useful. It isn’t practical. And the second an activity becomes productive or useful or practical… it is no longer play.
As kids we are able to enjoy an activity in and of itself. Kids are able to have fun in the process and not get caught up in the end result—whether that be a win or a finished product or whatever else. Kids are present when they play, and they do not care what anyone else thinks about their play. It is beautiful and wonderful to watch kids play, unafraid to jump, swing, get dirty or say the crazy story they have invented. They do not care if they get sweaty. They are not afraid that other people might think they are silly or stupid. They are not worried about what happens at the end of the activity.
As we grow up, we gradually lose this ability to enjoy and value the process rather than obsessing over results and with winning. We paint for the sake of showing off the finished product. We play sports for the sake of winning. And because we are so focused on the end result, we are not present for the process. Instead, the process produces stress as we put pressure on ourselves to succeed. We worry what other people might think about whatever it is we are doing. We can let the risk of losing keep us from playing in the first place.
The problem is that in our society, competitive play is the only kind of play we value. I am not saying there is anything wrong with a great game of pickup basketball or Monopoly. I love playing sports and games, and I am extremely competitive. What I’m saying is that when we are playing to win, we aren’t really playing anymore.
Something else I have noticed about the way kids play is how they do not care about creating something perfect, winning or even finishing an activity. I notice because it drives me crazy. You start a puzzle, and they abandon it approximately 45 seconds later. My response is always, “Hey wait we have to finish it,” but the child was never even thinking about the finished product. They were doing it for the sheer fun of it. They were just playing. Or maybe you’re playing a game like Memory or Go Fish, where there could technically be a winner, and again, the kid just leaves right in the middle. I am thinking about how I can win from the get-go! I’ll let the kid win—don’t worry. But I still can’t help thinking about it. But kids aren’t playing to win. They are playing for fun.
So what can we take away from the way kids play? How can we return to that state—or should we?
First, we have to acknowledge that play is unproductive, and we, as adults, need to do it anyway. In his book Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, psychologist Stuart Brown writes that “we are built to play and built through play. When we play, we are engaged in the purest expression of our humanity, the truest expression of our individuality. Is it any wonder that often the times we feel most alive, those that make up our best memories, are moments of play?”
Then, we have to give ourselves time to do it.
During this time of social distancing, we have a choice between putting pressure on ourselves to make every moment of time productive or making room for play. We have a choice between spending hours consuming media or using creative and physical energy to play.
It is easier not to play. It’s normal to be productive, get stressed and then unwind by watching Netflix for hours. And, hey, that is OK, too. Let’s give ourselves the grace in this season to play, but also to rest and be lazy when we don’t have the energy to do anything else. But what we really need, and what our kids really need, is to play. And we can certainly make time for unproductive, pointless, fun play during this season.
So… go play! It might be painting or swimming or hiking. Or maybe it’s playing with your dog or playing make-believe with your kids or experimenting with cooking. It might even be simply going for a walk. Play is whatever feels life-giving to you.
What are those things you love to do, but you don’t make time for because they aren’t productive?
What’s the hobby you love, but don’t do often enough because you feel like you’re not good at it? Is there something you’ve always wanted to try to do or make, but haven’t because you’re afraid you might look silly?
Do it. Do it simply because you want to and because it sounds fun.