Play can be so many things but one definition is an act of engagement within yourself or with someone else. Play often throws in a little enjoyment, boundary testing and fantasy as well. Many adults would add to this definition of play that it is an activity with a lack of practical purpose. However, I would argue that play, right from the beginning of life, has many very important functions for all human beings and even other creatures in the animal kingdom, too.
Let’s go back to the beginning because so many important things happen in the first year of life, in our brains and in our ability to create relationships. Picture a baby, she is having her diapers changed by her father. As he finishes up, he leans forward and blows a big raspberry on his baby’s belly. They both make eye contact, giggle and smile. These moments are seconds long but they are the beginnings of play. It’s also the stuff of bonding and a tool to navigate relationships for the rest of our lives.
A child of seven might be using this kind of play in a game of tag with other kids, an adolescent might poke her friend in jest, and an adult might tease their friend or partner to have a laugh. This kind of play is now not just a way to bond but a way to test boundaries. We use play to navigate the place between me and you, for both physical but also psychological boundaries when there are conflicts in needs or desires. You can see many animals use this kind of play to see what they can get away with and who holds more power.
Play lives in storytelling, which is one of the key ways that we make sense of the world, whether that be a fantasy world, the narratives we create about our own lives or both. Let’s return to the baby we were following. She is now 4 years old and she is playing with a bunch of dolls. She can play by herself now but still narrates aloud her thoughts and inner dialogues. She tells her rabbit doll he has been a bad boy and needs a time out and then turns to the other animals and ceremoniously announces it is bedtime while throwing little blankets on each one. She is parroting words she has heard before but is also engaging in a reenactment of these events. In this simple act of play she is making sense of routines, rules and relationships she has taken part in and practicing them as well.
Structured play and creative expression are something that many of us continue to use into adulthood, whether it be through board game night with friends, corporate engagement activities to teach a new skill, bocce on the corner with your friends of 30 years or a knitting circle. Games and activities like this provide us with a ritualized events, within which, we can find time to have deeper conversations, connect with one another or have the opportunity to build an entire community.
The girl that we were following is now 10 years old and she has become passionate about water polo. Through playing on a team she’s made new friends outside of her school which has been a relief when social situations at school were strained. She has learned to persevere both physically and mentally even after she has made several mistakes and to not only recover from a game lost but shake the winner’s hand. All signs of how to build inner strength to face challenges but also how to create social supports to increase resiliency in the face of difficulty.
As adults we often use spoken words as we are more developmentally able. However, play often lives in the realm of the unspoken, using metaphor, movement, gesture, facial expression, tone of voice, dance, song or art. This is the hidden language that often has more impact in communication than the words themselves. This can be seen clearly in the art of a good sense of humour; tone, timing and intonation can make or break the opportunity to connect with someone over a laugh, just ask any comedian.
Ultimately we lose a precious tool and skill to connect with others when we disregard small acts of play at any age. Armed with a wealth of moments of play this young girl can go on to pass it on to her own children, her peers, her co-workers and partners. It becomes the integral building block for how to live with others and how to understand ourselves. Play also provides the tools to bounce back and realize our resilience during difficult times.
Challenge yourself to incorporate little moments of play into your everyday lives; add a dab of humour to help put a new spin on old ways of thinking, spend 15 minutes in a fantastical world with your child or connect with colleagues after work over a game of pool. You might just find that it will add a layer of vibrancy and strength to your life.