I'm going to tell you a secret.
Sometimes, when I’m walking Nessie (the four-legged-rescue-one), I spy the swings in the children’s play area. Now, there’s no notice announcing they’re not for adult use. So why is it, therefore, as a 38-year old with only a wolf-pup child of my own and therefore no human children to have a sneaky swing with, that I feel there’s an unwritten, implicit assumption that such playful activity is Not For Adults? However, I love to go on the swings. I love the feeling as the air whooshes and swooshes to and fro in my ears and plays with my hair as I swing higher and higher and suddenly, that's it:
I’m lost in the moment
I’m not 38 anymore, but a bespectacled 8 year old with grazed knees on my beloved swing in my parent’s back garden. On every swoosh forward I’m trying to touch the tip of a tree branch with a little extended, BHS-plimsoll-wearing foot. So there it is. That’s my little secret: When the world is still sleeping, or perhaps just not peeking, I steal into play areas while out walking Nessie and swing. I smile. I laugh. I giggle a bit. I swing and I climb and I see the world from high up and for a few marvellous moments I’m a bird. I play.
Yet then, perhaps I see a distant dog walker. Or a car turns a nearby corner and an Adult Face peers and looks and…judges? So I stop. Jump off. Retreat. Come on, Nessie, time to go… Time to Be An Adult again. To Grow Up. Be Serious. Do Responsible Things. And…why? Why do I feel like I should stop? Why do we, as a society, stop to play when we’re adults?
Why don’t we lose ourselves anymore in what positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls ‘flow’, a state he describes as being:
“completely involved in an activity for its own sake. When the ego falls away. Time flies.”
An activity we immerse ourselves in so fully and completely and wonderfully that Time waits and waits and checks her watch and taps her foot and eventually gives up and leaves us there, in our moment, to enjoy just Being. Why, as adults, have we forgotten how to play? And by ‘play’ I don’t mean organised, scheduled, Now-I-Will-Play activity. Not something we read we should do to better ourselves and so it becomes yet another checked-off item to accomplish in our To-Do-List daily lives. What I’m referring to is that spontaneous, simple, lose-yourself-even-for-just-a-moment, in-the-flow play. Maybe, like me, you love the wind in your hair as you hold on to those ropes and kick out and swing to the waiting tree tops? Or perhaps you love to doodle. To fill an empty page with colour or words, to dig in the dirt or splash in the puddles until the water squelches and runs down the insides of your wellies. To kick up piles of golden leaves in the Autumn or crack those puddles in Winter when they’ve frozen over?
To laugh and giggle when no-one else is there to watch and, as Csíkszentmihályi says, to escape the chains of the ego and to let Time go on, to pass you by, to fly.
Our society tends to dismiss play for adults. Play is perceived as unproductive or a guilty pleasure. The notion is that once we reach adulthood, it’s time to get serious. And between personal and professional responsibilities, there’s no time to play:
“The only kind [of play] we honour is competitive play,” says Bowen F. White, a medical doctor and author of Why Normal Isn’t Healthy. Yet, play brings joy. And research suggests it is vital for problem solving, creativity and relationships. Dr. Stuart Brown from the National Institute of Play defines play as something that is voluntary, pleasurable, “offers a sense of engagement, it takes you out of time” and the act itself “is more important than the outcome.” Dr Brown has spent decades taking “play histories” from patients, after discerning its absence when studying a group of homicidal young men. He believes that play (of any kind – there are seven different types, from “object play” to “narrative play and storytelling”) is essential to brain development. “Nothing,” he says, “lights up the brain like play.”
So, if you happen to see a rather adult-looking lady early in the morning in your local children’s play area, a bemused, elderly mini-pinscher beside her, swinging away to her 8-year old heart’s content, then that’s me, and my little secret. That’s me losing my Grown-Up-Responsible-Self and doing what my Inner Mini-Me has always loved to do. So, why not light up your brain with play? Fire up your soul and recharge those internal batteries and go out there and do whatever nourishes your inner Mini-You. Dip your toes in old familiar water, fondly nudge that forgotten child in you to remember, to find happiness in the simple, wonderful art of play.
Originally published in print, July 2017