In my work with young children, I continue to come back to a basic question. Why is play suspect? With the abundance of research to prove that play is necessary and perhaps the single best way for children to create a meaningful foundation for their adult lives, why don’t we believe it? Really, if we’re going to second-guess any childhood activity, why not structured activities? Or television? Or advertising to children? Or anything else. Why is it always play?
It got me thinking, and I’ve devised an experiment. I’m convinced that much of the battle over play – the need to defend play as a reasonable activity for young children, and the desire to cut play as a means to achieving greater and grander academic success – is actually a symptom of cultural play deprivation.
First, a little background information*. Feelings are symptoms of a met or an unmet need. Satisfaction might result when the need for recognition is being met or loneliness might result when the need for friendship is unmet.
Resentment can build when an unmet need of our own encounters that same need – met – in someone else. For example, I have a strong need to focus and work uninterrupted. My life, surrounded by young children, is perpetually fragmented. My partner is working on a large writing project, and spends long days hunched over books. Writing. Uninterrupted. (Or at least that’s my interpretation of what he does, which I’m sure is grossly inaccurate!) Regardless, my need for a single focus leads to resentment.
Unchecked resentment might lead to attack – fracturing a relationship, undermined by misplaced emotional energy. Instead, recognizing my feelings as the voice of an unmet need provides an opportunity for a solution. Spending an evening at a coffee shop working on one project or calling a babysitter over the weekend so I can start and complete projects can fill my need for focus.
Emotional wholeness and integrity rest in honoring feelings as a kind of gauge – clues to what we possess or lack. The resentment is not about him. It’s about me and my needs that need tending.
To skip self-reflection risks wallowing with envy and resentment, escalating a problem and fracturing a relationship. Without mindful introspection, those around us become collateral. How often have you recognized a sharp tone with your child resulting from your own fatigue?
Now here’s where it relates to play, and the point at which my grand experiment is born.
What if the war on play is not at all about children, but a symptom of our own play-deficit? After all, play is a basic human need, yet when was the last time most of us adults played? If we began to play as adults, would some of our cultural antagonism toward this necessary childhood pursuit be tempered?
If this is true, even slightly, the solution is to cultivate a practice of play.
We have “practices” for all kinds of dispositions we wish to nurture in ourselves: spiritual practices, hygienic practices, and health practices. What if we all committed to growing a daily play practice? What would we have to lose? Wouldn’t we all be happier if we played? More present? More centered? More productive? To develop a play practice will take some intentionality. Not all non-work is play.
I’m working on a post about the specifics of developing a practice of play to follow this one. For now, I’d love to hear your ideas. What do you do to play? How much time each day, week, or month do you spend playing? For you, what constitutes play?
*I learned great language for talking about needs and feelings through the Center for Non-Violent Communication. CNVC offers articulate, concise materials for building strong relationships of all sorts – parents and children, spouses, friends, work relationships, etc. I could not recommend the literature from CNVC more highly, particularly Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.
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