By Sandra Ladley
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“What is the true habitat of the human? Adventurous play. A human denied this habitat of adventure and surprise and play is denied the opportunity to become truly human.”
- Brian Swimme, The Universe is a Green Dragon
A common invitation that kids extend to adults is “Let’s play! Or “Will you play with me?” As grown-ups, we tend to be reticent - we’re so tired and weighed down by the burdens of our days. We hesitate to follow the impulses of the moment wherever they may lead. We’d rather just get back to work, back to scrolling, back to the game, back to our drink, and back to arguing with our partner. Maybe we feel embarrassed to be silly or foolish now that we’re adults.
What happened to us?
Can you recall a time when it felt freeing to follow whatever - when you could create a whole world from what was around you, and have fun? A time when you could spin tales into imaginary realms and sing and dance and run around to your heart’s content, laughing all the way?
Play is generally defined as something we do that brings us joy, without a necessary result. In today’s world where we measure everything for high efficiency, play can feel like a waste of our precious time. Why bother with something unproductive? These days it seems we never get enough rest and we can’t catch up, or catch a break. We wake up afraid to look at the news to find out what’s happened next … war, pandemic, climate change, systemic injustice, the economy ….Who has time or interest in play? If we’re not doing something to survive or be a help then wouldn’t we rather just hang our heads and cry? Play is way down on the priority list.
We know that play is crucial for a child’s healthy development but did you know that play is also important for us as adults? Play can bring joy to our lives, relieve stress, stimulate creative thinking, support our lifelong learning, and connect us to others and the world around us. Play helps us have insights, accomplish more, and enjoy our accomplishments. Science has shown that we need to play to keep our brains flexible, ward off depression, sustain optimism, and sharpen our social-emotional skills. Making time to be in, as Brian Swimme would say, our natural habitat of adventurous play, a habitat where we discover and are surprised, helps us reclaim our humanness.
Research shows that how we enter into what is referred to as a “play state” is very personal, and can change over time. For example, I tend to dislike games of all kinds - word, board, and card games. I tend to get anxious in a competitive environment so games are not a preferred play state for me. My aversion could have something to do with the fact that my mother was very focused on the card game Bridge. She competed in Bridge tournaments, became a Life Master, and taught Bridge classes. While I ended up being averse to games and Bridge, my sister has become a bit of a card shark herself. We both like numbers and strategy, such as are used in games and Bridge, and likely inherited that trait, but have found different play states based on our personal experience. Recently the Wordle phenom has helped me to relax with game-playing a wee bit and I now enjoy being in a Wordle group. Research shows that we can change what stimulates a play state for us over time.
In contrast, a kind of play I enjoy is making tasty meals out of leftovers. I find the challenge of creating something delicious out of whatever is available to be thrilling. But, again, it’s not for everyone. My dear friend throws out all her leftovers. She is uncomfortable even having them in her refrigerator.
A wide variety of activities can engage us in a play state, and it’s very personal.
How did you play when you were young? How do you play now?
Dr. Stuart Brown, the Director of the National Institute for Play, has gathered information from thousands of interviews to identify eight “Play Personalities” that reflect the many different ways we engage in play. Dr. Brown has categorized the play personalities as follows:
1) The Collector – joy in gathering collections
2) The Competitor – joy in playing the game/winning
3) The Creator/Artist – joy in making things
4) The Director – joy in planning and making things happen
5) The Explorer - joy in discovery,
6) The Joker – joy in humor and silliness
7) The Kinesthete - joy in movement
8) The Storyteller – joy in imagination
Where do you find joy when taking a break from everyday responsibilities?
What are your most and least favorite types of play?
What do you think your play personality is?
How does it help you?
What play would you like to try out or do more of?
Throughout the pandemic, I found myself doing collages for the first time in many years. I delighted in working with materials I found on the street or in my recycling, not using any “art supplies” per se. I joined an online group called ArtPlay facilitated by my friend Odessa Spore where we would check in, meditate, have an open space for play, and then we would share at the end - if we wanted to. Sometimes I did collages, other times I worked on singing, other times I worked on writing, and other times I danced around. In a sense, we shared a zoom open studio space. Being part of the ArtPlay group greatly helped my mental health during the pandemic. I recommend joining such a group, or perhaps you have a group of friends who would like to set aside time to play together regularly – a grown-up version of what we did when we were young. Like with going to the gym or anything else we want to do but resist, it can be hard to get going on your own with playing and it helps to have buddies to support you.
In Karuna Training, we recognize different learning styles and include an open space for play as part of our retreat programs. We find this helps people to integrate their experiences. It is interesting to watch people’s inclinations – playing together or alone, or going out into nature. Some are very active, others less so. People write, move, sing, draw, paint, construct things, walk about, and take photographs. Some of us can get quite silly. It’s fun! Sometimes people want to collaborate, and sometimes they want to share - or show and tell. The play periods bring a kind of oxygen that aerates the emotional intensity that can arise in group retreats.
In the Karuna Live! Zoom open session on Saturday, April 15th from 10 - 11 AM MT we’ll have a chance to explore this topic of play together, assess our proclivities, and reflect on how we might want to bring play into our lives going forward. I hope you’ll join me.
Spring is here! Time to take a break! Fresh start! Let’s play!