Where in your life do you feel most connected to play ?
Maybe it’s the small moments of quiet in the day when your mind can wander, or rolling on the floor with your child in hysterics, or maybe play for you is the focus and challenge of a job well done, or setting a goal and meeting it. Maybe you feel most at play when you are sarcastically bantering with your partner, or reading a good book, or losing yourself in your favorite TV show, or weeding and planting in your garden.
Whatever play looks like for you right now, and there are many many ways for play to appear, you can feel how important connecting to play is to your wellbeing and vitality. Without it, our lives are dry. One boring step after the next, an existence of subtle but pervasive overwhelm or boredom. And our relationships suffer without play as well. We drift from one another. We forget the joy that connected us at one time and only remember the responsibility.
I see many children in my office who don’t know how to play. They get overwhelmed by choices. They get deeply upset when they lose a game, or try with a hurricane force to make sure they win. They feel frozen with pressure when given the sacred space to “do just about anything you want” (as is the framework in play therapy). They don’t know how to let go and drop into play.
Children and adults alike who lose their ability to play, lose a vital connection to what generates both happiness and success.
Stuart Brown, M.D., founder of the National Institute on Play and author of the ground-breaking book, “Play, How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul,” says play is anything done for its own sake that has the following qualities.
As parents it can be hard to drop into a state of play. There is so much to do, and we feel so responsible to get it done, and done well (even though we are exhausted!). Even things that are supposed to be fun can start to feel like chores or another evaluation of how we aren’t good enough. Drivenness and our own inner critic (fueled by the positive intentions to provide the best life for our family) are the killers of play.
We inherently know the importance of play. You can feel the longing for the freedom and lightness it brings it as I talk here about it’s lack. So what is getting in the way of letting ourselves play more? Truly play. I don’t mean running from life or quitting your job and pulling the kids from school to live off the grid and romp in the woods all day (though I can’t say I’ve never fantasized about that!). I mean how do we infuse play into all we do. How do we wash the dishes in a state of play? How do we drive to school and work and make it feel like play? How do we remind ourselves of the potential for play and the freedom that comes with that state, when we connect with our family and our everyday lives? How do we play again with those we love the most?
This is a question I, myself, have been pondering for a few years. Here is the part where I would normally share advice or stories of how things have changed for me and for the parents and children who do come to remember play. And I assure you, we all can come to that remembering again. It may not necessarily be easy. It may take strength and patience as we turn and look squarely at the life we have and finally say yes to that longing for more, terrifying as it may be. But I have found the nectar to change is in the questions. Answers too easily get hijacked by a sense of “should” and responsibility. “I should make sure I find a moment that feels like play every day” “I should make time for myself more” “I need to have one date per week with my partner”. Turning something pleasurable into a playless duty. But the questions have the power to guide us to what we are wanting, and to making it a reality.
So I leave you with are the following questions. May they work you from the inside out and guide you to your own truth. Again and again. In the face of uncertainty that they can be answered, and fear that they may not be. May they bring you to the invigoration that waits for you.
What gives me the greatest sense of play in my life?
What do I need to let go of to allow more play into my life?
How can I connect to a sense of play every day?
Write these questions in your journal and list all possible ideas. Play a game with a friend or your partner in which you take turns saying as many possible answers to each question as you can think of. Write them on post-its and stick to your mirror. Make them repeating events in your calendar. Let the questions simmer and find the cracks that lead to your opening. Let them open you to your own version of play and discover the increased connection to your self and to those who love you that follows.
Qualities of true play:
I do it for it’s own sake, not to get something from it (even if there is a side effect of it)
It’s fun, interesting, or feels good (even if it’s hard) and I want to do it
I can lose myself in it and feel more free
I can access creativity and improvisation
I want to keep doing it
We all know that play wrestling with our kids when they are little can be one of the most fun and connecting things we can do as parents and as a family. Rolling around laughing together and sneakily finding ways to grab one another’s socks off or stuff a pillow under a shirt creates fun and hopefully hysterics for all. But did you also know that play wrestling can reduce symptoms of ADHD and is even a great tool to connect with your teen?
When children of all ages play wrestle, especially with an adult attuned to their feelings they experience these benefits:
Play wrestling is a fun and easy way to get more connection, less fighting, and even more compliance with homework in your household! All you need to do is keep a close eye on your child to make sure they aren’t feeling afraid or overpowered in the play (and if they do, then you mellow it out a bit) and be at the ready to protect yourself from a play-grab that could go awry. Be on your toes and snuggle your child with as much vigor as will get them laughing in hysterics (remember, no tickling! It can make kids feel powerless. Teasing towards tickling is just fine though).
Bonus points if you play wrestle before homework as your child will be more focused and able to complete the work from all that good contact with you.
Karen Wolfe, MFT is a psychotherapist in San Francisco and the East Bay. She is passionate about helping children and families thrive and has particular expertise with children with exceptional learning and sensory styles.