The Power of Play
I was reminded of the positive impact that play can have during a recent trip to the grocery store. A few weekends ago, I found myself standing in the check-out line waiting to cash out. My cart full of groceries, I stood there staring straight ahead, my mind focused on the to-do list that was waiting for me when I got home. I carefully tried to keep the line moving while maintaining social distancing when my eyes locked with the toddler in the cart in front of me. He was moving around, looking as though he was dancing to music that only he could hear. He was thoroughly enjoying himself. Our eyes remained connected as he continued to move and entertain himself. I started to mirror his movements, … head to the left, … head to the right, … arms here, … a jiggle there. Eventually, a sideways shy or embarrassed look came over his face, which I responded to with a “peek-a-boo” gesture. Our engaged interaction continued as his mother finished her transaction and he was slowly pushed away. Our eyes stayed connected until he was almost out the door. Neither the mother nor the cashier was impressed by our antics.
As I packed my groceries into the car, it occurred to me that my mood had shifted. Suddenly, I was much more aware of my surroundings. I wasn’t thinking about the to-do list anymore, but rather was watching and listening to the people that passed by. I was taken aback because the feeling was somewhat unfamiliar.
I don’t think I have to convince many that the past two years have been challenging. The ups, downs, stops, and starts have taken their toll on many of us. So, what was it about that toddler that led my mood to change so quickly? Why did my to-do list no longer feel quite so onerous? Why was I suddenly more in focus? I started to think about the playfulness of our interchange and it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember the last time I was silly or playful. I’m a certified play therapist. Have I forgotten how to play and be playful? After much thought, I realized it isn’t that I have forgotten how to play, but I have stopped intentionally playing. More importantly, I have stopped noticing and really being present when opportunities for play do come up. It’s hard to notice small moments when it feels like the sky is falling around you so much of the time. The reality is, aside from competitive play, our society often dismisses “play” for adults, pushing the idea that life gets busy, responsibilities mount, and there is no time for play when you grow up. Really? Or, do we just not recognize that play might look a little different for adults?
In preparing this piece I found a quote that explained my experience that weekend perfectly. In his book "Play," Psychiatrist Stuart Brown, MD, writes “… it’s all around us, yet goes mostly unnoticed or unappreciated until it is missing.” As a play therapist, I’ve seen firsthand the healing power of play with the children with whom I worked. But, what about the adults? Brown emphasizes our need for play by comparing it to oxygen. If it’s that essential to our wellbeing, are we not playing? Or, just not noticing the small opportunities for play throughout our days – the brief lighthearted interchange and laugh with a colleague, the 20 minutes of go fish before bed with a child, or dancing with a toddler in the checkout line at the grocery store?
I know the past couple of years have been challenging. And some days it feels like you are doing nothing more than just trying to survive. As we emerge from the holiday season, I encourage you to think about and notice the ways that you may have played over the past month! Reflect on how you played as a child. What type of play felt most enjoyable? What makes you laugh? Did you do some of that in the past few weeks? If not, can you find ways to do more of it? As you head into the new year, think about how you can find small moments to do something that you really enjoy. You might want to surround yourself with playful people (or pets). Or, like me, find little ones to play with. However, it doesn’t have to be with anyone else. Play can be choosing something that you enjoy and doing it by yourself - painting, playing an instrument, going for a walk in nature, or watching a funny movie. You don’t need to play every second of the day to enjoy play’s benefits. Remember that “play” can be a means to healing - no matter what your age.