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The Power of Play

Learning through play is an idea that most of us are familiar with in the context of child development, but often overlook for adults. The identity of a "good worker" and the social merit that comes with it can easily eclipse the continued need for play into adulthood. In case the heavy events of the past year have eclipsed the need for play in your life, I'm sharing an easy discussion from some of my research and practice of play.

Play is essential and it's not getting enough airtime in our lives. Since the channels most of us tune into regularly activate our unconscious fight, flight, or freeze (and appease) response, the heavy realities that bombard our attention frequently overshadow the need to slow down and enjoy simple pleasures. We are not meant to process as much information as we do each day. We must build in breaks and we thrive when some of those are play breaks in addition to rest.

Play is an integral part of the learning process. It's when our brains synthesizes information and strengthens neural connectivity. As kids, we play like it's our jobs because it is. Play is how we learn the myriad of skills we need to navigate life.

As we move into adulthood, many of us are conditioned to believe that the need for play has passed. This is partly cultural and also driven by the exponentially increasing pace of technology. Play will always be essential for cognitive integration, nervous system regulation, building our resilience, and cultivating the joy we need to fuel necessary change.

It becomes our responsibility as well as a gift to ourselves (and others) when we learn to prioritize joyful wellbeing-- not in spite of every hard reality going on around us, but because of it. Building our resilience and compassion levels has a positive impact on the wellbeing of other nervous systems of those around us. Seriously. Check out mirror neurons.

So, the question becomes: How do we like to play? Do we know? How do we learn to prioritize play as an important, albeit non-urgent dimension of our lives?

Experiment. Explore. Build in time for nothing. Seek boredom.

Often, it's in these spaces (which my grandmother called "piddling") that our imaginations come out to play.

Prioritize play and watch with wonder as life begins to brighten. This is the edge of our zone of genius. Exploring it becomes the greatest adventure and the most intense lesson in personal growth.

One last caveat about play:

Often where I think we can get stuck in burnout is because prioritizing play in our busy modern lives takes planning, coordination, discipline, and boundary setting, which are the very skills play can help us develop.

It's almost a catch 22. We have to notice the feelings of burnout and consciously choose that we are going to direct our energy (the energy we feel like we don't have because we're mentally and emotionally exhausted) by intentionally channeling it into rejuvenating and fun activities. Self-direction and stewardship of joy are skills we must practice to retain.

The planning takes energy, but once we land in the fun or calming activity we chose, we are restored almost as if by magic. Just like we would charge our phones or computers when the battery is low, we must recharge our own batteries. Play (and rest) are the act of plugging ourselves in. It's up to us how and when we do it, but it serves more than just ourselves to figure it out.

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