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We NEED to Play!

Play: to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.
– Google dictionary

There a millions of ways to play

Memorial Day Weekend 2020 taught me a great deal about play – what it is and how it makes us feel. We spent the three-day weekend at home (no surprise lately) with our three adult children. We all had the same mission: to make the most of the holiday weekend by taking a break from regularly scheduled life.

Despite the fact that we shared the same goal, it was pretty amusing to see the many ways the five of us found to play. Here’s a smattering of our household activities (I’ll withhold players’ names to protect the innocent): Fishing for hours. Walking the dogs for hours. Playing video games for hours. Watching Netflix for hours. Reading for hours. Gardening for hours. Playing Scrabble for hours.

We NEED to play

Play is important. It is necessary. As if the subtitle of his book didn’t say enough about play, Stuart Brown, author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, says that play is a biological drive as critical to our health as sleep or food.

When children play, according to the American Association of Pediatrics, they are developing their imaginations, their dexterity, and their physical, cognitive and emotional strengths. The benefits of play do not cease as children grow up into adults.

Play isn’t all fun and games

According to an article by Nancy Shute in U.S. News and World Report, play can help us solve some of life’s toughest problems. When we take a break from a challenge to play, our minds continue to work on the problem. Play allows our minds to create new neural networks and to reconcile cognitive difficulties.

In addition, developing a habit of regular play can actually make all of life go better. Any parent knows that the ability to work past difficulty or boredom to find the fun is a skill we must teach our children. But by doing so, we are providing a powerful life skill.

If we can embrace the notion that play is not always “all fun and games,” but can involve some discomfort and hard work, we will be better able to find a sense of play in everything we do – even our work. This perspective is a powerful way to make life more enjoyable.

Playing around on a yoga mat

My yoga practice has given me a deep understanding of this concept. While I wouldn’t say I unroll my mat to play necessarily, I am grateful to my practice for helping me to develop a light-hearted, at times playful approach to challenges. Without it, I think the hard work of my practice would have grown too heavy to maintain.

Here’s a smattering of ways I’ve learned to add play into my practice: Having a laugh at myself when I mess up. Deliberately replacing a grimace with a smile (everything is easier with a smile on your face). Letting go of any need for perfection. Being willing to approach the same challenge creatively – even playfully – from many angles rather than giving up.

Playing around in real life

Because lessons learned on a yoga mat are always more powerful when applied to real life, let’s return to an item on our family list of “fun things” – gardening.

Three of us engaged in this activity over the weekend. (I’m going to throw anonymity to the winds here.) I was definitely playing in the garden. After seven hours, I was filthy, sore, exhausted and so very happy. I had engaged my mind, my imagination and my body in the project just as I used to get lost in games of “Little House on the Prairie” when I was little.

My son spent about half the time I did in the garden. As hard as I was playing, he was working. You see, he lost his real job weeks ago when the pandemic forced restaurants in Philadelphia to close. He needed money. We needed weeds pulled. At the end of the day, he was filthy, hot and sore, too. But he wasn’t happy until he’d showered and shifted from work-mode back into play-mode on his video game.

My husband was between my son and me on the spectrum of play vs. work. While left to his own devices, I’m 100% sure he wouldn’t have chosen to spend his day gardening, he joined me about halfway through the job with a smile on his face. As he bounced with both feet onto the shovel, working on precision and a fine dismount, he was absolutely finding a sense of play in the work.

“Life must be lived as play.” – Plato

Given our family experience over the weekend, I would quibble with Plato’s use of the word “must.” Life doesn’t have to be lived as play. But, just ask my husband and me, it is so much nicer when it is. So, play on, my friends. Play any way that makes you smile. But make sure you play!

Come play with us! Join our community of seekers and practitioners who yearn to squeeze all they can out of this wonderful life.