Once, a long time ago, I was a kid. And now I have a kid. And you might assume that my many years between childhood and motherhood was a long education, a steady, forward course in learning, growing, and improving, but in fact, there’s a lot of forgetting that happens. When it comes to play, we might even call it regressing.
Kids know how to play. But if you’re like me—which is to say, a pretty typical adult—you may have lost this skill over time. Perhaps it’s atrophied from little use, or maybe you set it aside intentionally when the world of work and Serious Decisions started demanding your attention. So consider this a primer on play. I’ve learned a lot in the almost three years of playing with my sweet boy, and I’m here to share it with you.
First, some principles. You may not play the same way I do, but if you can find activities that somehow fit these principles, you’re onto something.
- Get passionate, not attached. That is, go all-in on whatever activity you’re in the middle of. Creating an elaborate car washing station utilizing several mixing bowls filled with water and every single lego in the house? YES. Spending two hours constructing this in the middle of the dining room only to feel like doing puzzles after it’s built? ALSO YES. Get passionate about what’s right in front of you. And when that passion fizzles, feel no shame. The play was the process this time around.
- Anything is anything. As adults, we are burdened with the terrible curse of knowing what things are. Kids, not so much. There’s no reason a banana isn’t also a moon, and certainly no reason that moon isn’t also the fender for a yet-to-be-built monster truck. To get a little philosophical, we sometimes forget that reality isn’t contained by words, rather, language helps us approximate, gesture toward, and signify reality. Try to let anything be anything again.
- Moving slowly helps. Walks and wagon rides are a daily exercise in our household, and even though we cover the same routes over and over, we discover new things all the time: construction vehicles repairing sidewalks, new blooms in our garden, different shapes in the clouds, the fact that that yellow truck was there, but now it’s here (and so on). All of these things matter, profoundly, to my toddler. We are watching the world shift, slowly, subtly, and every observation is like a revelation to him. Why not to me, too? Why take for granted the chance to witness the world while I also move through it?
Now that we have these principles in place, let’s ~play.~ I wanted to offer a few actual activities where I feel I can really embrace play in a full way.
Using kinetic sand. Yes! You, a person with or without a toddler, should get some. It brings back all the fun of beach sandcastle building, but the coating on this type of sand prevents the grainy overwhelm of suddenly feeling like there is sand evvvverywhere, and, more importantly, it is like magic to behold. It is somehow both solid and liquid, both firm and flowing. Honestly, it boggles my mind. And turning it over in my hands is not just fun—often I’m building bricks for my toddler to knock down with a wrecking ball—but sort of grounding and a little relaxing. Kinetic sand, like beach sand, play-doh, and other moldable activities, combines a physical act of concentration with a sense of wonder at what to create. To me, that’s perfect play.
Learning to draw baby animals. This is precisely what it sounds like. I am slowly learning to draw cute little baby animals. Let it be known, first, that I am no artist. But my toddler sincerely believes I can draw whatever he asks for—what utter confidence! I have been asked to draw yaks and pumpkins, excavators and characters from his favorite shows. I kept hearing myself excuse the drawings—“ahh, sorry, this isn’t a great panda, is it?!” until I finally realized I was no doubt instilling in him a sense that it was embarrassing not to be excellent at something. Of course it’s not. It’s wonderful to be bad at things. And it’s wonderful to decide to take them up with a passion, anyway. Passion without attachment or even skill: that’s play. And that’s why I am trying to enjoy the chance to draw with my toddler, rather than lament or excuse it. I decided I like drawing, and like it enough to want to do it more.
It’s wonderful to be bad at things. And it’s wonderful to decide to take them up with a passion, anyway. Passion without attachment or even skill: that’s play.
Making stacks. I genuinely don’t know if there is such a thing as play without stacks. Find something and make a stack with it. Stacks of chairs, pillows, and blankets to make a fort, stacks of books to read or launch vehicles from, stacks of cards in an effort to break the world record for tallest freestanding card house. Stacks! Are just very important. Just, please, find something you can stack and do that right away.
Saying no. Okay, maybe this doesn’t sound like play—hear me out. Kids have an absolutely incredible connection to their gut-level center of knowledge. Just ask my child, who has never tried blueberries, yet insists that he knows how he feels about blueberries. He also knows, in the deepest sense, which direction we should take our walk each day. He’s tuned in to his own taste and preferences (even though he doesn’t yet realize he’s sooo wrong about blueberries) in a way I feel disconnected from. What I mean to say is, he isn’t yet swayed by trying to navigate a whole world of “oughts”—that he ought to like blueberries, as well as any locally sourced, organic, cruelty-free food, or he ought to wear certain clothes to “fit in” with his peers, or he ought to major in something practical because he ought to make money, get out of debt, provide for a family someday … and so on. Saying no, every once in a while, to the pressure of various social “oughts” is like a small rebellion that makes room for play. Because at the heart of play is freedom—and not just freedom to declare that a banana is a moon is a fender. If you are bound by shoulds, there’s no room for what’s just beyond.
I have no doubt whatsoever that part of my own, slow unlearning of the art of play has been because what’s necessary became the more valuable judgment on how I spend my time, rather than what’s possible. Some of that is good and fine. But it has taken time (and, okay, therapy) to realize that I have shed more than I had to in the effort of growing up. Turns out I still like dancing to Missy Elliott in front of a full-length mirror. Turns out I still like getting dressed according to my mood in the morning and not my to-do list that day. Turns out I really like kinetic sand and stacks.
Turns out, we don’t have to shed the parts of us that wonder, that wander, that meander and mosey, slowly soaking up the chance to witness a world unfolding. We can still learn, create, grow, and say no. We can still play—and (not to add to your list of oughts), I think we should.
What activities or principles have helped you rediscover the power of play for yourself? Chime in below in the comments!
Ellen likes reading and writing and thinks homebodiness is a virtue. She has her MA in religion from Yale and works as the head writer & editor at a research institute dedicated to understanding the inner and outer lives of young people. She has one plant, one tattoo, one baby, and an identical twin. Contrary to all conventional wisdom, she regularly brings up both religion and politics at the dinner table.