When I was an elementary school teacher, the word ‘playing’ meant recess, and since that coincided with my lunchtime, I remember it fondly. After lunch, I would walk over to the playground early and watch my students for a few minutes before I needed to call them inside. Playing was the best part of their day, affirmed by their smiles and laughter. There were disappointments, too, which are a normal part of social interaction.
Google defines play as:
Verb: To engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.
My analytical mind was piqued. I didn’t consider ‘playing’, just for the sake of playing, because participation in an activity that has no payoff seemed too idyllic. I realize how ‘adult’ I sound, but truly, isn’t every interaction and situation an opportunity to learn?
Based on my belief that everything has a purpose, I decided to look back through my life and see if my ‘playing’ could be defined as having a practical purpose, instead of mere enjoyment.
Here are my highlights:
- I grew up in a massive apartment complex that boasted a full-sized basketball court. Nearly every afternoon during my teenage years, I could be found there. The same people showed up every day and we played for hours.
I became aware that the boys confided in each other, discussing the gamut of topics: Their girlfriends, what they considered attractive, school, sex, and family. As the only girl there, I was privy to their innermost thoughts. I was an invisible observer and learned something about myself: Observation is my comfort zone. This knowledge motivated me to double-major in Sociology in college, and serves me well as a writer.
- When my sons were toddlers, we spent most days at a nearby playground. They loved to dig and get dirty, so they would rush to claim their spot in the coveted sandbox. As the hours passed, the sandbox would become a revolving-door; a constant flux of boys and girls, who came over either to join in or to just watch.
Obviously, socialization is the main purpose of joint playtime. That’s the same reason homeschooled children have planned playdates with their peers.
But could there be another reason?
Perhaps a deeper purpose is to prepare children to accept others without judgement; everyone is welcome. It seems so simple. This sandbox ‘lesson’ provided practice for what will, hopefully, be repeated throughout their lives.
- In my late-thirties, I was a hard-working, single mom who needed some well-earned play-time. I wanted an activity that allowed me to feel like a child again, so I joined my county’s newly-organized kickball league. Advertised as ‘all ages welcome’, I showed up on the first day, ready to have a silly-fun time. Little did I know that the 20-somethings who made up much of the league were extremely competitive.
Because I was a personal trainer, their competitiveness became a total game-changer for me. I had what sports psychologists call ‘a fear of negative evaluation’. “If I do poorly”, I ruminated, “I’ll feel embarrassed and rejected”. This feeling caused me to leave on that first day of kickball and never return. But it did supply me with worthwhile information, allowing me to be conscious of my personal psychology.
- As I got older, my ‘play’ took on the form of ‘pretend’. After my divorce, I was sorrowfully thrust back into the dating world. To cope with this very different life, I made up what I called, ‘The Catnip Game’. To become ‘catnip’, or, irresistible to others, I practiced a ‘universal smile’. Years later, Tyra Banks, from the show America’s Next Top Model, coined the term, ‘Smize’, or, ‘smiling with your eyes’, which was essentially the same thing. ‘Smizing’ exuded a warm, open feeling and although I wasn’t thrilled to be single again, it helped me feel like I was in a perpetual good mood.
I also maintained eye contact with everyone I met. My technique was straightforward. I would look at someone until I could recognize the color of their eyes, then I would look away.
By playing ‘The Catnip Game’, I inherently increased my personal interactions, deepened the relationships with people I knew, and felt more confident. What began as playing ‘pretend’ taught me that feeling a connection was a gratifying experience, for both myself and others.
- I recently upgraded my game of pretend and took an improv class at the local theater. I was hoping to have plenty of chances there to ‘play’, and I was correct! Improv was all fun and games, with one steadfast rule: The “Yes, and-”.
Understanding this concept was simple. In an improv situation, actors are required to accept their fellow actors’ ideas and build on them. For example, if my partner opened our skit by saying, “That river is full of fish”, I wouldn’t say, “That’s not a river!”. Instead, I might reply, “Yes, and one of them is waving at us!”. And so on…
The “Yes, and-“ rule forces actors to avoid rejecting other cast members’ ideas, and instead, to find a way to go with the flow.
Improv taught me to become a more flexible thinker. Our world would benefit from having everyone practice this valuable skill.
I believe that Google has it wrong, because we are always given opportunities to learn. So, go ahead and play- and realize that when you seek ‘teachable moments’, you’re more likely to find them.
Now it’s your turn. Looking back on your life, what has playing taught you?