The Importance of Play

One of the things working with children has taught me, is just how important it is to make time for play. It doesn’t matter how old you are. Play is an essential part of leading a happy and fulfilling life. It seems like once we reach a certain age we think we are “too old” to be “wasting time” on such frivolous affairs. We can often even be mocked or looked down upon by those in our peer group or older generations for not “growing up” or “learning to act our age.” For some reason, as a society, it seems like we find unpleasant, but necessary tasks to be more worthy of our time than tasks that actually bring us enjoyment or pleasure. The irony is, when we are doing mundane “adult” things, it is ultimately to preserve and ensure our future happiness. So if happiness is the goal no matter what we’re doing, why always put it off in some distant future if we are capable of having simple pleasures right now as well?

I think one of the reasons a lot of adults tend to enjoy spending time with children even if they are not their own, is because they remind us how delightful it can be to play and pretend. Even just watching them do so can have a calming, pleasant effect on us. We are sometimes able to live vicariously through these children. As a child, I loved to play with little figurines and have pretend adventures and scenarios with them. Some days I would fill up the sink and they would have a “pool” day. Or we would go outside and they would go hiking or camping in the weeds. I’d collect small flowers and berries for them. These were some of the happiest times in my life. Back then, time didn’t matter. It hardly seemed to exist. I didn’t ask myself why I was doing the things I did. It didn’t matter. I was happy. Wasn’t that reason enough? Things seemed so much simpler back then.

I distinctly remember one day begging my mother to play with me. She did her best, but was mostly just watching me. I asked her why she wasn’t doing anything. She told me that she couldn’t remember what she was supposed to do. She had actually forgotten how to play. I vividly remember the confusion and disbelief I felt at the time. How can you not know how to play? It made no sense, but I felt sorry for her. It seemed impossible that I could ever forget something like that. Yet here I am over a decade later with no idea how I occupied so much time with my make believe. It breaks my heart each time I sit down with the kids I work with at a doll house and struggle to come up with anything to do. I want to weep for that inner child that has become all but lost to me.

I’ve learned that play is something that takes practice. Thankfully I am surrounded by children every day that can help me with that practice. Just the other day a little 5-year-old boy and I played robbers together. He had us talk in deep, gravely voices as we planned our heist. Then we ran around the waiting room, laughing maniacally as we clutched our fake money. It was a great time. Even though it’s hard to have such boundless, imaginary play as an adult, I have still been trying to implement more creativity and structured play into my days. Playing for me now mostly includes casual video gaming and art.

Even though I acknowledge that this play is worthwhile, it is still hard for me to justify the time I spend on it (even though it isn’t much.) I am constantly giving myself chores to do before I feel alright allowing myself time to just enjoy and have fun. Unfortunately, by the time I reach the evening hours I’ve set aside for it, I am too exhausted, stressed, and listless to really even enjoy my playtime. Another problem I run into is getting too serious about whatever it is I’m doing. When I began drawing (and even writing) everyday, my only goal was to schedule time for myself to explore my creativity and just have fun. But now that these things have become a habit, I have been feeling a lot of pressure surrounding these activities. It has started to feel more like work than play.

With so many gamers now available to watch online, even my casual video games have started to feel like a burden rather than a joy. I can’t help watching others play and then comparing my progress in the game to theirs. I feel rushed, inadequate, unhappy with where I am. Even though I know it’s utterly ridiculous, I can’t seem to help feeling this way. Often times this feeling is so strong that I give up on the game all together. I hope that by continuing to challenge these feelings I will be able to overcome them little by little. I hope I will be able to transform this playtime into something similar to meditation. Rather than focus on how my art compares to other’s or how far behind I may be in a virtual world, I will keep working to focus on my breath, on the pleasure I feel in the moment.

Living in a society so focused on production and outcomes, it can be hard to find the value in simple experiences. What once were things I looked forward to have started to become things I feel anxious about. I feel pressured to make each drawing better than the last. I criticize myself for not being creative enough or improving fast enough or consistently enough. I feel like what I write is just rambling nonsense no one cares about. That my art isn’t worth showing anyone. But even if those things were true, it wouldn’t matter! I must keep repeating to myself that the point isn’t the final product, it’s the pleasure of the process. What I create or work on doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t even have to be good. As long as I’ve enjoyed the time I spent working on it, that is all that matters.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

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