When Did You Stop Playing?

Photo by  Robert Collins

A vital question for self-inquiry and living a better life.

In the circles of many native healers, when people living a ‘typical’ modern life (e.g. in a developed country) come to them for help, the first questions they will ask are often centered around play. When did that person stop singing? When did they stop dancing?

The core question here, which I have come to appreciate as being tremendously important to my life, is this:

When did you stop playing?

Play is a vital part of life. It’s fun, it’s peaceful, and our minds turn off when we’re immersed in it. In this regard, it is a return to some of the most primal, powerful parts of ourselves.

I can recall, in excruciating detail, a moment where I was deep in thought about my future. I was in high school at the time, preparing to make the first real ‘adult’ decisions of my life in deciding who and how I wanted to be in the world.

I was intensely focused on grades, earning potential, and other such metrics that I thought would define me. In that swamp of forward-looking thought and self-imposed pressure, I lost sight of the fact that I was still a kid. That I was a human being. And, in the face of people telling me what I should be doing, I forgot about play. I forgot that play was amongst the most fulfilling things in my life, that it allowed me to enjoy my days rather than fear them.

A friend of mine, an older gentleman who often bestowed sage advice upon me, noticed my particularly high degree of sulkiness on this day and asked when I’d stopped playing…I remember looking at him like he had three heads. How, when I was in the depths of such important life consideration, could he ask me about play?

I fortunately ended up considering his suggestion that I do something fun, and organized a game of tackle football with my friends. Hours later, I returned home sun-soaked, bruised and possessing what I imagine was the goofiest smile on my face.

My problems, if only for a time, were gone. I felt like myself again. I remember crying at the sheer joy of recovering the childish wonder and excitement that none of us ever lose, but that is often buried under the to-do lists, worries, and fears that have taken play away. From that point on, play has been a conscious crutch for me, and is now an integral component of self-care for me.

Why do we stop playing?

This may seem obvious.

It’s easy, what with ubiquitous access to the internet and the subsequent reminders of “to-dos” that come with it, to get caught up in self-created responsibility, obligation, and prioritization that leaves play in the dust.

Whats more, society at large has diverged from valuing playfulness. Filling up free time with play can be considered a waste by many, as it is instead traditionally allocated towards more ‘practical’ pursuits such as career and familial obligation.

But play is actually a wonderful compliment to such endeavors. It can enhance relationships, professions, and essentially one’s entire life experience.

Play has been shown to release endorphins, improve brain functionality, and stimulate creativity. And it can even help to keep us young and feeling energetic. Studies show that play improves memory and stimulates the growth of the cerebral cortex. Play has also been shown to trigger the secretion of BDNF, a substance essential for the growth of brain cells.

If you’re not enchanted by this scientifically sound data, let me put it more simply: fun is fun!

Many thought leaders and progressive explorers of the human condition are starting to focus on the importance of remembering play and making it accessible. I’ve been fortunate enough to glean insight from many of these teachers (like Ido Portal and Devin Kelley) and apply their discoveries to my own experience.

It is amazing how quickly we can remember this innate ability to play, to remember how important it is, how much we love it, and how good at it we are.

How do we start playing again?

Photo by  Mi Pham

Photo by Mi Pham

This comes down, for me, to reassessing my value system.

In modern life it takes a pragmatic approach, at least initially, in order to create a structured lifestyle that is conducive to fostering one’s playfulness.

I have had to, time and again, make a conscious decision to value and set aside time for play.

This literally means scheduling play dates with my friends. It’s something thats necessary when everyone is caught up in their own microcosms of life with kids, work, and the myriad of other obligations that we’re all no stranger to.

This decision means that I prioritize play; I schedule those play dates, those tennis matches with my friends, and the time blocks to go rock climbing.

Even when I’m on holiday, I make sure that I have undistracted, unadulterated time to just play in the sand or in a river.

Rediscovering my playfulness has necessitated my exploration of new practices and games: from previously untried sports, to dance, to song, to new hikes and outdoor excursions.

Situating myself in an environment free from distraction, far from the nearest phone or TV, has been an easier way for me to elicit the sort of playfulness that I lost and longed for. To just be without distraction until I remember how easy it is to get lost in the (better) distraction of playing with a feather, or a blade of grass, or dirt in my hands.

Play, for me, means tapping into my beautiful weirdness and unapologetically reveling in it. It means getting naked and jumping in front of a mirror and laughing hysterically at how weird different parts of my body are if I look at them for long enough.

With practice, I’ve found I smile that smile that makes me feel like my five-year-old-self again.

I laugh more of those deep belly laughs that leave me exhausted on the floor with cramped abs.

I remember what it is to play, and know that it is an accessible cure for every time I inevitably get stuck in seriousness and self-doubt.

We have to grow old. We don’t have to grow up.