You know, it’s pretty much impossible to truly “play” when your spirit isn’t lighthearted.
Think about it. We may send a child out to “play” but if they are upset or angry or afraid – if there is any kind of heaviness in them at all – even should they go through the motions there isn’t any actual playing going on. It’s just a show to make us happy, or to distract themselves or comfort themselves.
When we are with a group and are expected to be “playful” but our hearts are heavy or our minds are depressed, worried, anxious or in any other negative space, we know that no matter how many smiles we may present to the crowd, within ourselves we are not actually participating in it.
But when our hearts and minds are in that space of ease and joy – when we are feeling our best – then even when we are alone, even when it may not seem appropriate, even when we are in a place that may be dark… we often feel very playful.
Sometimes this causes us to giggle or to have to suppress a laugh at the most inappropriate moment, which can be embarrassing.
But how beautiful a gift we’ve given ourselves to have such a light heart even in a dark hour. How often those are the memories that cause us to laugh even years later when we think back on our playful energy in the middle of that moment.
At its core, our ability to play is actually one of the strongest elements and energies we can use to face some of our darkest times. It’s important to our overall health and well-being in every form: mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Thinking about play, I found five reasons why this is the case for me.
Playfulness is a powerful ally
There is an innocence to true play. There are times when we say someone is playing with another person or creature, and we don’t mean it in a kind way. We are saying that this someone is actually being cruel, comparing it to a cat “playing” with their prey before eating it.
This is a selfish kind of “play” – it’s something that is only concerned about how it makes that person feel and no one else. It is really narcissism.
(I suppose now I’ll get comments on how cats are narcissists, which, when you think about it, is probably true. But they’re super cute, fuzzy, purring, soft, cuddly little narcissists who also give a lot back simply by their presence in our lives. So I guess they can be forgiven. And I think there’s a whole other article in there somewhere on that subject, but I digress…)
However, true “playfulness” or “playing” really involves a beautiful, transparent innocence that comes directly from the child within each of us. No matter how old you are, when you are doing that thing that makes your heart happy and your eyes light up, that causes your face to smile and the laughter to bubble up, when you are participating in something that makes you forget everything else in life and just LIVE in that moment with complete abandon and joy…
You are playing. You are playing with life. And it feels great.
In a way, all sorts of play could be deemed “narcissistic” or at least selfish, in that play is generally something we do for ourselves, not another. We play because it makes US feel good, not the other.
Yet often in the process, when our play involves others (as with sports, or music) it also makes the other feel good as we participate in the play together. But generally we don’t get into it for them, we do it for ourselves. And in this way it encourages us, it helps us feel better about who we are as we lose our insecurities to the open-minded happiness of simply playing.
The best play involves us completely forgetting all of our inhibitions and simply allowing ourselves to just be in that moment of joy. We are so involved in play-time that time itself becomes irrelevant. And we walk away from it feeling confident and complete.
Play can help us feel strong and secure. It can motivate us to experience new things and be braver than we’d ever thought possible. Playing can give us the ability to face any challenge, so long as it comes in that package of play. Because we’re just playing, after all, right? There’s nothing to be afraid of here.
Playfulness can look even death in the face and laugh.
It’s true. We may think it’s because it doesn’t know any better. But more often than not, it laughs in the midst of the pain because it is relieving us from the weight of that burden on that day. It is helping us to carry on and power through. It is giving us the ability to see the light at the end of the tunnel by carrying that light inside ourselves.
One of my favorite movies is titled “Life Is Beautiful” and is all about the power of play, and how it can give hope during the most dire circumstances. About how a playful heart can help us get through the worst of it.
The title is my mantra, for it isn’t talking about life being beautiful only when it’s all good, though it shows that as well – or being able to find play only when everything is going well, though that is also part of it. It is a story about how beautiful life is no matter what happens around you and to you. It demonstrates how playfulness can give us the strength to look death in the face and laugh. And it won an Oscar for it. If you haven’t seen it, do so – and make sure you have a box of tissues nearby.
So we see that play is really an ally that can help move us through the darkest of times and ease the journey in the midst of it.
Play keeps our minds sharp
We often think of play as something unimportant or childish. As something we don’t really have time for and don’t really “need” in our lives unless we suddenly have that time open up. Play is not generally regarded as anything special, and is, in fact, often derided as wasting our time.
I mean, how often have we heard that said? “Stop wasting your time playing around and get to work!”
But the reality is, play is extremely important. Many companies have discovered that, in fact, by creating a playful environment for their employees they have healthier employees who call in sick far less, as well as far more productive employees who get more work done daily than when in an “all work and no play” environment.
There’s been multiple studies done on this, so much so that major corporations around the world have readjusted their workspaces and work environments – and even their workflow and time schedules – around the idea of having their employees “play” while at work, or at least feel as if work is a “playful” place to be.
Even if that play isn’t involved directly in what they are doing for the job, just the act of taking the break to play a little revs up their minds and bodies to be more active and able. Many companies have gyms and/or basketball courts, encouraging both physical fitness and play.
The thing is, they’ve found that playing actually sharpens our cognitive skills.
It helps us imagine more, it gives us the chance to use different areas of our brain that we don’t normally use daily, and it literally is “brain food” for our minds.
Playing a game such as Scrabble, for instance, or those Wordle games, are so popular because they challenge our language skills and encourage our focus. Studies have also shown that people who continue to play games such as these into their old age tend to have a much lower rate of dementia and Alzheimers than those who don’t. Playing challenges us in a good way.
We may not think we like challenges and having to focus, but play proves us wrong. When we’re playing, we are constantly challenging ourselves and having to refocus in order to continue in the playtime. We are usually problem solving as we use our bodies and minds in new or different ways, or train ourselves to get stronger in new areas.
But play challenges and focuses us utilizing techniques that make us happy and find enjoyment in the process, and therefore more responsive to it. We aren’t thinking of it as “work” and are therefore not limiting ourselves or our capabilities. And we aren’t getting bored with it.
When we play we just assume we can do it, whatever it is we can figure it out, because if we don’t it doesn’t matter – we were just playing after all. The stakes aren’t that high. We’re having fun with it. And so we relax and allow our natural abilities to take charge, and find ourselves able to do so much more through play than we often are able to do by “working hard at it.”
(Not to disparage hard work and determination, which have their purpose as well, and are often the only things which help us move forward and become skilled experts in whatever area we are focused upon, especially professionally. As my husband, a musician, often says to his students; “Practice doesn’t make perfect but it does make progress that can lead to perfection. But no practice means zero progress and definitely no perfection ever.” But again – I digress into another article there. Back to play.)
So rather than it being something simple, something childish, and something useless that is keeping us from work – the reality is by playing we actually ARE getting back to work. Playing helps us work harder and better.
Play is also a wonderful tool
One of the things I was told to do years ago by my therapist at the time was to “go find something that makes you want to play.” In my case, she encouraged me to simply go to my piano and begin playing music again. Even if my heart wasn’t in it, just to go through the motions of it.
Why, you ask, when we just talked about how sending a child out to play when they’re upset doesn’t mean they’re actually playing?
Well… for the same reason we’ll send that kid outside to play even when they’re moody and don’t want to do so. Because we know that even if they’re just sitting out there pouting, they are still doing something that may be able to bring them out of that mood and distract them enough to get their minds and hearts back into alignment.
It’s a great way to help with anger, or fear, or just general feelings of malaise.
Distract yourself with play
Go for that walk in the park, even if you don’t feel like it. Sit down and play that guitar or piano, even if you’re not really in the mood. Pick up some crayons and color something, even if you’re angry. All of these things can and will at least distract you from those negative emotions for a little while, and often they refocus your mind and slowly transform your energy. So that by the time you stop the playing, you are feeling better, even if it’s just a little bit. Many times, for me, I feel completely transformed. My playtime brings me back into positive feelings.
It’s a classic tool to fight depression, especially clinical depression, which so many are experiencing right now due to these extremely difficult times. Just play for awhile, in whatever way usually makes you happiest, even if you don’t feel like it. You may be surprised to find that after just a few minutes, things feel a little bit better.
And you’ve given yourself the gift of some playtime. Which is always fun.
So use playtime as a tool to help you when you are going into those negative spaces or feeling out of control to come back into balance. Use it as a therapy tool to encourage yourself and distract yourself when you need it most. Use play as the tool it is, don’t ignore it, for it’s a very powerful one.
Playfulness can help change others
How often have you found that you’re in a bad mood, but then someone you love jumps up to you in playfulness and fun, and the next thing you know your mood is lifting? You can’t help but join in the playtime with them because they are just irrepressible with their enthusiasm?
You may be feeling inadequate, and suddenly a nephew shows up grinning and says; “C’mon Aunt Jeanette, let’s do scooters! Don’t be scared, you can do it, I know it! Let’s play!”
He will not be persuaded otherwise, and off you go, scootering away, wobbly, nearly falling down, skinning a knee like you were five again, but playing. And finding afterward that you feel like you can do ANYTHING, because, dangit, you just learned to scooter with your nephew! He believed in you, so you did too!
Or you may be feeling lonely, depressed and rather sorry for yourself when a friend calls to say; “We need to go tide-pooling today and I need someone to drive me there!” So you grudgingly agree to be the designated driver… only to find yourself knee deep in ocean water, staring at a starfish in wonder and delight, and squealing with joy when a teensy squid suddenly squirts past your leg.
And when you get home that night, there are rocks and shells in your pockets, there is sand all over you, your heart is full, and the smile on your face won’t quit. Plus, you are in so much gratitude for your friend.
Or you may be feeling deep grief as you say goodbye to a loved one, the family gathered together to send their ashes into the ocean. And as you watch their remains rapidly disappear into the waters you suddenly hear your grandmother say of the man she’d spent nearly her entire life with;
“He used to be a better swimmer.”
And you can’t stop laughing through your tears.
Another’s sense of play, of simple playfulness, can ease our pain, renew our spirits, and heal our souls. Just as ours can, and will, with theirs. Because play comes from that beautiful, light-filled, joyous space within you. Pure playfulness comes directly from that highest part of yourself that is connected straight into Love. And that can’t help but affect those around you in the best of ways.
Playfulness can help change ourselves
It comes from a love of what you are doing. Whether playing music, or sports, or writing, or coloring, or just going for a walk in nature. You love that activity, and it brings your heart joy and your mind peace to do it. You are playing with it.
It comes from a love of where you are. Whether at home curled up in your favorite chair with your favorite book in front of a fire with a cat purring on your lap – or out at the lake fishing all day in the solitude of nature. You love that place and the peace it brings you to be there. And so you play in it.
It comes from a love of who you are with. Whether your child, your partner, your spouse, your sibling, your friend, your cat or dog… that person (or animal), whomever they are, lifts your heart every time you see them or think of them. And so you love to play with them whenever you get the chance.
It comes from a love of yourself. Whether you are nine or ninety, when you are in that space of mind and heart where you are happy with who you are, then you are in a place of playfulness with yourself. You aren’t concerned about how you look or what weight you may be or what anyone else may think of you. You are ready to play simply because you are accepting of yourself in that moment.
It comes from a Love of Life.
If you can’t find the time to meditate, or exercise, or do other healthy things, at the very least treat the child within you to some playtime every day. That child in you needs their daily playtime, as every child does.
As you plot out your routines and weekly activities, see where you can fit in the time to play, and make it happen. Even if you don’t feel like it. In fact, especially if you don’t feel like it.
“When you don’t feel like it” is the exact time when you should find a friend and go digging for clams or walking your dog. This is the moment play can and will be most helpful to you.
You will find it will lift your spirits, clear your mind, and calm your heart. You will find it lower your blood pressure and ease your breathing. You will find it makes you sharper and clearer. You will find it eases you through the day. You will find it gives you the break that you need. You will find play is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself – and all those around you.
Because play is powerful enough it can even help you love your life again
By JEANETTE DUBOIS
Jeanette is a film & tv editor, writer, director and producer who’s worked on Emmy & Telly Award winning shows, movies, and music videos for a variety of networks. She’s also a trained operatic who mostly sings to her cats now, though sometimes she expands her audience to her family & friends. She loves gardening, good books, good wine, and good conversations, preferably all at the same time.
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