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Play Can Help Us Be More Sensitive and Tough

Updated: Jun 11, 2022

“People tend to forget that play is serious.” ~ David Hockney

The clock says a bit past midnight, then 2 a.m., then 4. What is keeping me awake? The thought of the legacy I want to leave to my grandkids – meaningful, useful guidance toward living a good life. It is urgent because my big opportunity for intense generational encounter comes in August. Grand camp.

Grand camp is when my husband, John, and I invite our five grandchildren to come together at our place. Many logistics are involved, but for me the more important issues are the culture and values we aspire to, the activities we provide, and the examples we set. This year, we will put particular emphasis on… play.

According to Dr. Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute for Play, play is as important to our health as sleep or what we eat. Play researchers like Brown, Brian Sutton-Smith, David Eklind, even primatologist Jane Goodall say play is difficult to define, but we all seem to know what it is and why we do it. It can be humor, games, roughhousing, storytelling, art. We do it simply for… fun.

We know how to play. We did it when we were kids. We made forts in the woods, climbed trees, went to sock hops, jumped rope, flew paper gliders, rode horses, played on maypoles, swings, monkey bars, played hide-and-seek, tag. My family played Rook, John’s Cribbage.

Play? Now? In this complex, competitive, anxious, aggressive world? Exactly.

Brown stumbled on plays importance after researching the playless childhoods of murderers. Recent research has connected play to better brain development and creativity, cognitive flexibility, social and emotional intelligence, an antidote for anxiety and depression, a boost to resilience. Play even seems to slow neurodegeneration.

John does roughhouse with the grandkids, mostly because he cannot avoid it. The moment he lays down on the floor, they come out of the woodwork to roll around.

Brown reminds us that there are many forms of play. According to him, we, do however, tend to have play personalities, certain ways of playing that we consistently prefer.

The Jokers love silliness – telling jokes, being goofy, playing pranks. The Kinesthetes love dancing, hiking, running – moving their bodies. The Explorers love visiting new places, learning new ideas. The Competitors love to play (and win) organized sports and games. The Directors like to plan and make things happen. The Collectors like collecting sports cards or sea glass, or visiting all the national parks for example. The Artists love creating and building, painting, photography, carpentry. The Storytellers love reading, theatre, writing stories, reading fiction.

Thinking about these various play personas may help us expand our ideas of how play can look for us. It is not intended to box in our fun, but rather to give us some insight into those parts of us which may be playful in different ways.

If we are still lost about how to go about playing, Brown advises that we think about what we liked to do as kids and think how we might do some form of that play today. John biked and skied a lot. He can still do that.

Summer is the perfect time for PLAYING with grandkids, prioritizing play, remembering how we played as a child and bringing more of that play back into our lives. And for a little more adventure and PLAY, we might try out another play personality.

I am guessing my dominant play personality is storyteller, but Brown recommends that we all do some play that involves moving our bodies. Since John is a kinesthete and enjoyed biking as a kid, we decided to buy the electric-assist, Rad bikes. I would normally not be able to bike as far and as fast, but with the electric assist bikes I can. It is a play stretch for me. But as I consider how I want to be a good role-model for my grandkids and keep my own brain and body active, I shove myself out the door to bike in our spectacular Wenatchee Valley.

If you need more prodding for yourself or research to show to your adult children (and their kids’ teachers!) who prefer more work and less play, then:

1. Read or recommend Stuart Brown’s book, Play. You can also hear Brown on TED talks. Or google PlayCore and read his blogs.

2. Watch the PBS clips of The Promise of Play on YouTube.

3. Simply observe children and small primates playing; researchers say it might stir up your play juices.

Play researchers tell us as life become more complicated, we must be more vigilant to include play… because we need the kinds of smart, creative, thoughtful, both tough and sensitive kids play produces. We need older people who are smart, creative, thoughtful, both tough and sensitive too!

How might you Journey to The Good Life by playing?


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