Play: it ain’t necessarily what you think, either…

Susan Schroeder Arts

Play for its own sake is essential to most sentient beings. Animals and birds play. We don’t know what they get out of it, but we know that they seem to enjoy it — even seem to find it necessary. Kittens roll and tumble and chase their tails. Dogs chase sticks and frisbees. Birds play with balls and talk to themselves in mirrors. Otters slide down river banks, over and over again. Dolphins frolic just because they can.

Play, activity done just for its own sake, comes naturally to children. Small children spend hours pretending, playing make-believe with dolls and other toys, with or without fellow dreamers. When there are others, especially parents who can still play, tell stories and pretend — and who will take the time to do it — playtime becomes even richer.

Unfortunately, in most cases just “messing around” and having fun are often soon replaced by activities that stifle a child’s imagination and replace original thought with pre-packaged, shallow entertainment. It’s easier to sit a child in front of the television than to become a part of its intimate life by participating in make-believe, reading a book, or otherwise becoming more than just the person who feeds them and says “No.”

Then comes the tyranny of organized activity: preschool, sports practice and games, lessons of all kinds. These activities are fun some of the time, but competition doesn’t come naturally to children. Structured time and activities are foreign to them. They have to be taught to let clocks and other people’s priorities control their lives.

Some of these things are inevitable. Life for adults is complex, and it’s no longer possible for a little girl to follow dad around the farm and spend time with him while he’s working. In many cases there’s not even the opportunity for a child to hang around the kitchen with mom so she can teach him to make cookies from scratch. Even our role models live structured, rigid lives for the most part, and sometimes adult work schedules prevent hands-on parenting. Shit happens.

Many, perhaps most, addicts came from troubled backgrounds and never had the opportunity for carefree play. As a result, most of us forget how to play as we move toward adulthood — if we ever learned. We begin to confuse just about any activity that doesn’t involve formal “work” with play, when in many cases we’re just replacing one job with another.

Sports, for example, might seem to be playing. We say that we “play” basketball, softball and so forth, but it is not play in the sense that I mean. The stress of competition, the goal-oriented effort and socially approved antagonism of competition is work. We don’t feel relaxed afterward, we need to wind down. Certainly we feel better (unless we lost), because people love endorphins, but have we been playing?

Put sports into leagues, and where are we? Now we have obligations to meet. Other people are depending on us to “be there for the team.” What if we don’t feel like it and would rather take a walk or read a book? Nope. Gotta be there for the guys, the girls, the women in the bridge club.

Even individual endeavors are suspect. Take extreme sports like rock-climbing, or skydiving, or even less extreme stuff like bicycling for exercise. Interesting? Even engrossing? Sure. Just fooling around with the equipment can be play, but when we set out with a goal in mind and determination in our heads, it’s not the kind of play I mean. Bird watching, one of my special interests, can become obsessive, an almost endless quest to fill up lists, see more and different birds in different places. Interesting? To birders, yes. Good exercise? Sometimes it’s more than a reasonable person needs or wants. Fun? Sometimes. A great place to make friends with good people? Absolutely. But when taken beyond the casual stage it’s not playing. And wildlife photography? OMG!

Even couch-potato activities like video games are goal-oriented, and some are addictive as well. Browsing the Web, whether on social media or otherwise, isn’t usually relaxing. Perhaps there’s no goal, but neither is there spontaneity or intellectual stimulation, and far too often a casual trip across the Interwebs turns into an exercise in frustration, anger or other disturbing feelings.

The only thing web-surfing has in common with real play is lack of goals. Creative play doesn’t need goals or planning because it is, in its essence, just aimlessly, pleasantly passing time. It’s childlike appreciation of the here and now, the ability to let the imagination soar, to be alone but not lonesome, in company perhaps, but not obliged.

It’s being able to turn left on a whim, instead of right, to stop and look instead of worrying about the schedule, to talk or not, and to choose when to go home. It doesn’t require equipment or similar distractions, but they can be part of play too if used as tools instead of part of a goal. Hopping on a bike and cruising to wherever, for whatever the day brings, is play. A drive for the simple pleasure of driving is play. Laying around looking at the shapes in the cloud is play. Wandering down a path and looking at flowers and bugs without cataloging them or needing to photograph them is play.

Peek-a-boo with a child, or hide-and seek, or spontaneous role-playing (“I’ll be Peter, you be Tinkerbell”) is play. Play is pleasant and non-goal oriented. It’s. . .whatever. But it’s not work. If you can’t walk away and do something else whenever you feel like it, chances are good that the play factor is dim.

We can take time to play. We can find ways to do it. We can recapture, or perhaps feel for the very first time, the lightness of heart that comes with pleasure just for its own sake. It may not be easy to overcome the way we were programmed by life or our own belief systems, but we must. Balance is the basis of recovery, and play goes on one side of the scale. There’s plenty of stuff on the other side.

You get the idea. Maybe you already had it. In that case, I apologize for taking up your time when you could have been playing.

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