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How about a Play date?

Two children playing on a fence

As a professional Yoga Teacher, I am often asked about learning advanced postures and practices. For some, “advanced” yoga assumes twisting and folding the body into tighter pretzel shapes or balancing upside down on the smallest pinky finger. If you Google advanced yoga postures, this is exactly what you’ll find: images of complicated poses and invitations to learn handstands and arm balances. For me, “advanced” speaks to something very different… for me advanced is actually, maybe a bit of a regression… Advanced practice may be best understood as a return to our child nature… to play!

What is Play?

I got the opportunity to spend time with my niece and nephew this past week. They are 9 and 11. They had no difficulty answering my question: How do you play?

  • K (11): climb trees, build and run obstacle course
  • R (9): jumping, sliding, balancing, running around, playing catch

When I asked the same question to my adult children, I received a very different tone in their answers. “I don’t understand.” “What do you mean?”

What did they NOT understand?

When did play become limited to children? When did play become synonymous with childish? Did I unknowingly sign an agreement when I accepted voter registration or driver’s license? Did I agree that my years of play were over and now my option was work and “adulting”. No, I’m certain I did NOT! The Encyclopedia of Children’s Health defines “play as the work of children”.

Myth #1: Play is for children

Play is the work of children. It consists of those activities performed for self-amusement that have behavioral, social, and psychomotor rewards. It is child-directed, and the rewards come from within the individual child; it is enjoyable and spontaneous.

Although beautiful and even hopeful, this definition concerns me on many levels, not the least of which is the MANY children who have no play in their lives! Let’s nip this myth straight away. Play is not the opposite of work. Nor is play exclusive to children. In fact, work and play are not mutually exclusive for anyone.

The opposite of play is not work — it is depression.” – Stuart Brown

What do we know about play? It’s fun! It’s energizing, uplifting, rejuvenating, creative, oh yeah, did I mention, it’s fun? “The genius of play,” according to Stuart Brown, MD, “is that, in playing, we create imaginative new cognitive combinations. And in creating those novel combinations, we find what works.” Brown is a medical doctor, psychiatrist and clinical researcher and the founder of The National Institute for Play. I’d like to have a play date with Dr. Brown

The Importance of Play

By adulthood, most people have lost their ability to playfully explore themselves. Play therapists are trained to help adolescents, adults, and even the elderly relearn the values of play. Playful exploration has been proven to enhance both cognitive and physical behaviors, and there is a significant amount of research from the fields of neurophysiology and molecular biology that supports play therapy as a valid therapeutic technique even for those well past childhood. Suffice it to say, play is important for people of all ages.

Play has been shown to optimize learning, enhance relationships, and improve health and well-being. Play could include a variety of modalities such as movement, sand (tool) play, dream play, nature play, social play, pretend (fantasy) play, creative play, storytelling, and vocal play. One of the most significant benefits is that play can provide a comfortable and safe environment that may prompt an adult to approach more serious issues.

With depression and mental health issues on the rise, we definitely need more play. And we need more community connection. Marian Diamond, a neuroscientist from UC-Berkeley and leader in the research on the value of play since 1960s, concluded that play enhances brain development when shared with friends. Simply put, the brain works better when we engage in play, but we shared with friends optimizes the experience. Connection matters.

Have you ever rationalized your own play neglect? Let me rephrase it: Have you ever prioritized your work to the point of having no play time? I have.

I had to reprogram a deep embedded thought that play is earned after the work is done. “No time to play, too much work to be done.” Or even better, if you have time to play, you have time to work.” What adage have you “learned” about play?

Myth #2: play doesn’t have to be the only thing we do!

Out of fear, we often deny ourselves the space for play. I think we fear that if we start playing, we’ll never go back to work. This All or Nothing mindset is a trap we can easily fall into when we are learning the practice of yoga as balance (the Buddhists call it The Middle Way, not all that difference than the 70/30 rule of effort). When incorporated into our daily lives, play can actually enhance everything we do, including our work experience and outcomes. In other words, for vitality, for creativity, for inspiration, WE NEED PLAY!

Play can be described as a series of experiences… from anticipation to surprise to pleasure to understanding. These experiences result in strength and poise, grace, contentment, composure and a sense of balance in life. Maybe not all these experiences are felt with every play episode, but the cycle continues. Play inspires us to ride again!

I’m reclaiming PLAY and prioritizing its presence on my schedule! I’m adding it to my daily regiment and routine! As such, I’m on the look-out for playmates… and things that look and feel like play. What are your favorite ways to play… or those you remember from your play-ful days?

Reclaim the Practice of Play!

If you are ready to explore new ways of play, here are some properties of play to consider in your inquiry:

  • Seemingly purposeless (done for its own sake)
  • Voluntary (no mandatory requirements allowed!)
  • Inherent attraction (interest or passion)
  • Freedom/escape from time (set an alarm if you need to limit the play time)
  • Diminished consciousness of self (let yourself dance like no one is watching!)
  • Improvisational potential (free play!)
  • Desire for continuation (know that even if you have to return to “work” play appreciates frequent and consistent visits!)

When we play, we want to do it again! And again! For many of us, the challenge is getting started and cultivating the permission mindset to allow for play. Cooperative play, or scheduling a play date with a friend or a public event can support this commitment. Maybe you can extend an invitation to a friend to join you as a way to increase the play potential and the likelihood for follow-through.

Do you remember what it was like to wander through your neighborhood to knock on the door and ask your friend’s mom/dad/older sibling, “Can FRIEND come out to play?” Maybe start by sharing this email with a friend who could be a good play partner. Maybe start with… this made me think of you. Let’s set a play date!

I can remember the feeling of being invited out to play. Even today, it is such an honor to be sought out and invited… maybe because I was always the new kid in town (my family moved a lot). Regardless, the invite matters. So here’s your invitations: won’t you play today? If you need a playmate, I’m available!

I’d love to hear from you. How you plan to play in the coming weeks and months?