Summer camp is almost finished, and school is about to begin. As a parent of a first grader, I realize there is a whole new ritual to learn. Wondering why the school material list requires you to buy this brand instead of that. Check. Staring at the ceiling instead of sleeping and wondering if we have the right teacher for the year. Check. Making sure that we choose the "right" after school activities. Check. Changing those after-school activities at least three more times. Check, check, and check.
There is a whole process of prepping for school, and we can't mess it up because we worry about how our children will perform. Are they in the right activities that will help them succeed, give them confidence, and take steps toward being successful adults? There is a certain level of anxiety throughout the whole process.
As we schedule, and perhaps even over-schedule, our children into the "perfect" programs, I wonder if we have lost sight of the importance of play. The psychologist Peter Gray (yes, psych majors the author for the most used intro to Psychology textbook) has spent the last half of the century arguing the importance of play. Gray's five common characteristics for play states that:
1) Play is self-chosen and self-directed;
2) Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends;
3) Play has structure, or rules, which are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players;
4) Play is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life;
5) Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.
In other words, play means releasing our children to do whatever they want to do. Gray notes that play is not about something you are specifically doing. Instead, play has less to do with what we are doing and more of a combination of how we feel while doing it. Throwing a ball, building something, playing an instrument, digging in the garden might feel like playing to some and work for others.
The philosopher Bernard Suits often gets quoted when people talk about the act of play, in part because his book The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia explores what it means to play games or work. In a nutshell, Suits describes play as “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” In finding the perfect programs for our children, we dismiss the importance of the unnecessary time of play.
But something happens when we step out of our busy and results driven schedules to play. If we think back to our childhoods, we learned a lot about how to interact with others and the world around us through play. Play helped us learn social cues, problem-solving, and confidence building.
A central theme within our congregation's children ministry focuses on telling the story of our faith, but also around play. We want our children to learn how to interact with others, build interpersonal and problem-solving skills, and, ultimately, live out their faith. So, why have we abandoned play as adults?
Over the last 20 years, Playworks has been in the business of working with schools to create play environments during recess. Recently I heard Playworks’ founder and CEO Jill Vialet talk about the importance of play. She shared stories highlighting the importance of letting children figure out things themselves through play and the importance of trusted adults, like coaches, who inspire confidence in children.
Perhaps for us adults, we miss out on the importance of play in our own lives and within the lives of the organizations we are part of. Vialet pointed out that it is the nature of things to fall apart. A closed system, which is not receiving energy outside itself, will diminish. Play brings in new energy.
Children may or may not be part of your rituals for this season. But as we plan our schedules, let's be mindful to include the unnecessary, yet the life-giving and rejuvenating act of play.