Monday, September 28, 2015

The Smartest Baby on the Block, Play, All Grown Up

The Smartest Baby on the Block
1. (Re)Discovering Play in Parenthood

2. Play, All Grown Up
“Campfires are like snowflakes; no two are exactly alike,” I thought. I was standing in the late summer evening sunshine watching my husband and children while they worked together to gather kindling, build a pile of sticks, and light our campfire. Together we waited while the flames grew and the wood crackled. Soon embers would appear, glowing and inviting us to roast marshmallows.

No one was concerned with anything else. We were all engaged in the process of building the fire. We all admired the work. Then we all enjoyed what building a campfire afforded us - roasting marshmallows and building gooey s’mores to eat. After stuffing themselves with sugar, my kids went off to run and play and giggle while I sat with my husband. “How do adults play?” I asked.

First, we discussed what exactly is play. I had recently read a nice description of it online at

Play is that absorbing activity in which healthy young children participate with enthusiasm and abandon. Jill Englebright Fox

For children, the idea of participating in an absorbing activity with enthusiasm and abandon is called “play.” Enthusiasm and abandon as an adult? For adults, it is often referred to as being “in the zone,” when we hate to be interrupted because we are focused on what we are doing, enjoying it, and just can’t be pulled away. It is defined as “flow” by psychologist and TED speaker Milhalyi Csikszentmilhalyi: “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”


My husband sat and watched the fire burn. Then he offered: “I play when I am mountain biking. It is the first time since I was a kid that I have license to splash in puddles.” I smiled. It was such a “Boulder” thing to say. This place we live, Boulder County, Colorado, is known as a the Boulder Bubble. Not everyone has the luck and the opportunity to live in a place where mountain biking, cycling, hiking, skiing, rock climbing, and fly fishing appear to be the dominant hobbies. “OK, but what about something to which more people can relate?” I asked.

We went back and forth, brainstorming the ways in which adults get to be playful. What activities can we become absorbed in and enjoy with abandon? When are we in the zone? I said that I had played when I experimented on the piano but my husband said that the same activity reminded him of hours of practice. He said he played when he cooked dinner on the weekends, taking time to plan and prepare a meal. “Thank goodness,” I thought. His work in the kitchen was a nice break from my weekday responsibilities. Then we started to think of our friends and relatives and came up with a list:
  • individual sports like running, tennis, and golf;
  • team sports like soccer, hockey, and ultimate frisbee;
  • performing arts like music, dance, and acting;
  • visual arts and crafts like painting, drawing, sewing, and modeling;
  • cooking and gardening;
  • backyard games like wheelbarrow races, bean bag toss, and bocce ball;
  • travel;
  • playing games including board games, gambling, and video games; and last but not least,
  • sex.
In others words, adult play appears to be what we do for our hobbies. These activities might be something we do with enthusiasm and abandon daily but, more likely, they are reserved for special occasions. Cooking might need to happen daily but we might not “play” with cooking daily. Sports, performance art, and gaming might be scheduled for once per week or once per month so we can decompress. Backyard games and travel happen even less frequently.

It seems like everything children do is playful. I think that is why I was so excited when I first became a parent. I used it as my excuse to forsake grown-up responsibilities and immerse myself in the life of my newborn son. But that way of life was not sustainable nor was it appropriate. As I learned about the world of independent play for children, I also started to learn about the world of independent play for adults.

What I found was at first alarming because play in adulthood falls into the mental health arena. Psychologists and other scientists the world over offer support and resources to adults to encourage playful activities. As I read articles and listened to TED talks I came to realize how important play is for people of all ages! What was even more interesting is that the reasons why adults play and what  are the benefits of adulthood play echo what I had learned about why children play and what are the benefits of childhood play. Consider the article by Robinson, Smith and Segal. To start, they list as reasons for why adults play.

REasons we Play.jpg

That list resonated with me regarding my own play. I paint to feel challenged; I calm and focus myself when I run; I have fun when I play board games. Then I considered the list from a parent’s perspective. Those reasons why people play are applicable to even our smallest persons. And while it is easy to see how our toddlers are having fun it is sometimes less apparent that they are learning.

What exactly can someone learn through play? My answers to that question lie ahead. To start, consider yourself and what Robinson, Smith and Segal suggest as benefits of play for adults:

“Play can:
  • Relieve stress. ...
  • Improve brain function. ...
  • Stimulate the mind and boost creativity. ...
  • Improve relationships and your connection to others. ...
  • Keep you feeling young and energetic. ...
  • Play helps develop and improve social skills. ...
  • Play teaches cooperation with others. ...
  • Play can heal emotional wounds.”

The day we built the fire and talked about play had been a stressful one for me. My needs and my son’s needs were at odds. He was sick with a cold and wanted to rest at home all day. I wanted to go hiking in the mountains. The compromise we ended up with was to walk for a very short time together in the mountains and for him to sleep in the car on the way home. When the time came to build a fire, I was emotionally spent and pretty fed up with my son. So instead of helping gather sticks and building in the firepit, my role was less active and more supportive. And, yet, I felt my stress fall away.

I watched and listened to my husband and children talk about what size sticks they needed, whether the wood and leaves were wet or dry, and how to build a stack of kindling so that it had a high likelihood of catching fire. Their process reeked of science and math learning. Math was evident in their talk about length, quantity and type of stick. Lighting the fire, using combustion to transform the wood into heat and light, was preschool science.

Once the fire was crackling, I was ready to step into the fold and roast. First, I helped my son and my daughter mount their marshmallows on the sticks they had found. My husband helped them roast. Then one by one, my children came to me with faces aglow with pride and excitement. I used a graham crackers and chocolate to squeeze and slide the gooey treat off the stick, forming a s’more. This cooperative process of playing with fire and food healed my emotional wounds of the day and helped me reconnect with my son before bedtime.
I believe if we recognize the value of play in our lives as grown-ups, we will start to recognize the value of play in our children’s lives, too. We will appreciate the things we do that allow us to be “in the zone” and then see our children when they are in their own zone. As families we will become playful independent learners with lives full of joy.

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