“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” ― Plato
Mac and Nano are two funny fellas. When we arrive at Nano’s to visit, Mac is literally wiggling like a worm in his excitement. As soon as the leash is unlatched from his collar, Mac bounds through the yard with Nano following closely behind to keep up with his buddy. Mac and Nano are dogs, but you’ve probably seen little boys act that way when they get together to play. Play might be the most important thing in a person’s life, and its absence is quite possibly the reason for the full prisons and unimaginative workers in offices today. Plato recognized in 400 B.C. what is still the truth in 2015 A.D. — play matters to a person’s development.
My father was an aeronautical engineer and worked in the wind tunnels designing and testing sometimes top-secret projects. I remember when he was nearing retirement that he talked about the young men and women they were bringing in to take over operations. He wasn’t always impressed with their degrees–he looked for something else in the young engineers. I thought of him as I came across an important note in my research: Cal Tech had discovered in the late 1990’s that they had a problem in their Jet Propulsion Lab. The engineers and scientists that were replacing those retiring were unable to spot problems the older generation had been able to see. The younger men and women had impressive degrees but unimpressive capabilities.
What Cal Tech came to realize is what Dr. Stuart Brown discovered about murderers in the Texas prison system: too little play as children had impacted the kind of adults the individuals had become. Did you hear that? Children who had not been allowed to ‘just play’ were, and are, suffering in serious ways. The kind of play that produced the best people was not organized, so just because your child has played every sport and been on every kind of team doesn’t mean that he or she has played. Playing on a playground, in a yard, or in the woods, interacting with other children in a way that allows for creative play and establishing what are appropriate actions and behaviors. Let your kids play; let them figure out their own games and in doing so develop connections between their neurons and their peers.
Oh no, are you thinking that you never let your child have free play? Did you keep them in every organized activity you could? Or are you thinking about yourself “I don’t want to be a murderer, how do I make up for missed play?” Play is serious business, and it’s not too late for any of us to jump in right where we are. Stuart Brown’s book, Play, is a great place to start if you have time and enjoy reading—for me, reading might be a form of play. If you prefer a list of suggestions, here you go:
Walk your dog; throw a ball or toy with your dog; listen to music you like; learn to play an instrument, if that sounds like fun; knit or sew, if you enjoy that; laugh with friends; spend time with a child; do something that is purely for fun with no real goal in mind.
As I write this, I am headed for “farm day” with two of my friends. We try to make our getting together a somewhat regular activity, with the only goal being to enjoy each other. Since one of my friends has two small children, there is an opportunity for us to enjoy being carefree in a way adults on their own might not feel comfortable. One of my favorite parts of being together is watching the 3-year old dance. Caroline dances because it brings her joy, and her dancing brings me to the last story I want you to hear. It’s about a woman by the name of Gillian Lynne. Yes, someone has probably already recognized her name, but her story is important for everyone to know–for your child and for yourself.
You see, Gillian Lynne was a child who couldn’t sit still. In fact, the school told her parents that she must be mentally disabled. Her mother took her to see a specialist who, after a short visit took her mother into the hallway and turned a radio on as he left the little girl alone in the room. Watching through the secret window, they watched Gillian begin to dance. She wasn’t mentally disabled, the doctor said, she was a dancer. Changing to a school with people just like she was, her creativity blossomed. It was this type of play that lead Gillian Lynne to be a wonderful choreographer, best known for her work with Cats and Phantom of the Opera.
From hula hooping to exploring the wilderness, there are opportunities for us to play. It is so easy to stifle kids because they are active when, in fact, they just need to be able to play to express themselves. It is so easy to believe that adults should attend to the serious matters of life when, in fact, adults who invite play into their lives have healthier, happier, longer lives.
I’m thankful for the times my brother and I played in our tree house, for the times our boys dug up the back yard in a quest, and I’m thankful that my husband and I have music and writing to keep ourselves from taking life too seriously. Oh, that’s the interesting thing: the companies that encourage ‘play’ among employees have more productive workers. Hard to argue with facts, and it’s hard to argue with someone as smart as Oliver Wendell Holmes who said “Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing.”
For more information and encouragement in playing well: