Play is such an interesting concept in our culture. On the one hand, it’s viewed as frivolous, as undeserving of our serious consideration. Or maybe I should say, adults’ serious consideration, as there is a huge percentage of the population which does take play seriously and engage in it regularly. In fact this segment of our population engages in play to the point that we adults have had to set up a situation in which play is curtailed to a large extent.
Okay, so maybe I was having a bit of fun in the last paragraph. But this brings up an interesting point. If I think of this blog post as play instead of work, I feel a loosening of tension within my body. I feel giddy even. How often do adults think of work as just that: work. Would it be better if we thought of it as play? Would we get more of the activity done? It is a feeling of play I’m talking about. I’m not saying, that we shouldn’t be mindful of the activity we are engaged in. But I think having a feeling of playfulness wouldn’t be as detrimental as people think. The key is knowing how to feel an emotion without it carrying you away. If we were to put this into psychological terms, we would speak of emotional regulation.
As I’m writing this post, I feel playful but not to the point of jumping up and down and running around my living room. If I simply allow the feeling to be there, I enter a state in which I feel neither playful nor serious. It is a neutral space where I feel at peace. Where the divide between work and play ceases to be. If this sounds like meditation, it is. I feel fully present as I write.
One thing that I find very fascinating is the question of whether the low amount of adult play is impacting our mental health. I’m no psychologist, but as a young person I noticed how resigned most adults seemed. Even when they were happy, there was a muted quality to it. I was often able to turn this around by simply being in the room, especially when it came to my family. But I would wonder why they seemed truly happy only when I or another kid was around. I’m not saying adults need kids to be happy. In fact, I believe if adults hold this need even subconsciously, this can be a detriment to the young people in their lives. I certainly felt this way. One group of adults I liked being around very much was the elderly. There was this cheerfulness to most of them. They couldn’t get up and run around, but they had that childlike acceptance of life. I wondered why my parents’ generation, being younger, didn’t have as much access to this quality themselves. I reasoned that being younger should make a person more able to access a childlike state. But reality was showing me something completely different. I now wonder if this tension I sensed, is more of a general mental dis-ease within adults.
Another thing, isn’t it strange how adults put themselves down on purpose when introducing themselves to each other? This whole routine of, “Oh, it isn’t anything that major” to be honest is quite unnerving to me. Compare that to most kids. If they know they are good at something, they’ll tell you straight out. They’ll even praise someone to high heaven if they admire them for what they do. I saw this with one of the 4th graders I worked with last year.
The experiences I share here, are my experiences as a young person. But I wonder how common they are in the lives of young people today. I wonder if young people perceive their parents and other adults in the same or a similar fashion.
Please note: Portions of this text contain ideas from the excellent work of Peter Gray, a Boston College research Professor and author of the book “Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.” The book can be found here. He’s also the author of the wonderful Psychology Today blog entitled “Freedom to Learn” which is available here.