Spiritually Speaking: The Power Of Play

Oh playmate, come out and play with me.
And bring your dollies three.
Climb up my apple tree.
Look down my rain barrel.

Slide down my cellar door.
And we’ll be jolly friends forevermore.

This song was on a record which I played over and over and over and over. I sang it with or without the record. It can take me right back to childhood and those carefree days when I got to play at Grandma’s house – with the wind up Victrola, the play spaces in her flower garden, hunting for kittens in the hayloft and helping Grandpa plant his garden whether he wanted or needed my help or not.

I consider myself most fortunate that I grew up before televisions and computers could monopolize my time. I remember hours and hours of outdoor play – sometimes alone, sometimes with other children; sometimes with toys, sometimes with just my own imagination. Or any combination of the aforementioned.

There were many make-believe villages built in the dirt under the shade of Grandma’s snowball bush. Hours and hours spent playing house with cousin Jeannie, the number of children depending on the number of dolls we could find that day. Doll clothes and actual baby bottles were optional. Naked dolls always had pretend clothes to wear which Jeannie and I could clearly see and fully describe.

There was an element of play to chasing the cows from the pastures to the barn come milking time. There were trails to be named and the obvious hazards to be avoided. When herding cows one must watch carefully where one steps. A playful attitude could be stopped in mid-stream when forced to clean cow poop off the bottom of one’s shoes. To say nothing of the lectures and turned up noses of the adults hanging about if they noticed what had happened because we had failed to get it all off and our aroma made our presence an intense annoyance to all for the rest ot the night.

We climbed across the monkey bars and other playground equipment at school every which way but loose. We wrestled each other to the ground, pushed each other into mud puddles on occasion, played endless games of marbles and/or hopscotch at recess. In the wintertime, there were sledding and tobaggan parties, ice skating, along with snow forts and snowball fights. What fun!

Little did I know then how important all this playtime was for the development of my character. At least that is the theory of Stuart Brown, M.D. who wrote a book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul. I heard him being interviewed on the radio. I think I will have to read this book. Sounds like fun!

Dr. Brown contends that the timeless, guilt-free and purposeless hours spent in play give us problem solving skills, enable us to set visionary goals, and give us the ability to trust and to have empathy for the needs and welfare of others. The murderers he interviewed in prisons had never had the privilege of playtime. Introducing play techniques is actually benefitting these prisoners. They are being changed for the better. All of us are better off for having had time to play as children. And we do our children and grandchildren a favor if we find ways to give them time out to just be kids and play – without benefit of computers, televisions, ipods, cell phones or organized sports programs. Even when we are adults, we still need play time.

Lack of play makes one rigid and less open-minded in thinking about people and the world. Lack of play leaves one easy prey for chronic depression and less able to adapt to change. Know anyone like this? I do. Some days it is me.

We are warned against “helicopter parenting” – that is, hovering real close, trying to protect our children from all hurt and harm; exercising total control over how they interact and play together. Yes, we need to intervene in case of serious bodily harm, but Dr. Stuart suggests that some degree of rough and tumble actually prevents violence in later life – and if we get hurt now and then, we feel the pain – and when we realize how hurt we are – that’s how we gain empathy, hopefully deciding that we don’t want to inflict that kind of pain on anyone else. Combativeness is normal – in girls and boys! We learn how to handle it healthily when we are young, if allowed to experience the school of hard knocks from time to time.

Well, it’s not that simple but there is a big chunk of truth in Dr. Stuart’s observations. I’ll talk more about the importance of play next week. I’m on vacation this week. And I foresee some games of miniature golf in my near future. Find some play time of your own. I hear it is good for the soul!