In the early months of the pandemic my mom died. For so many reasons, my grieving process was unbearably messy. Simultaneously processing personal loss and managing life amid a world health crisis left me emotionally paralyzed. I was stuck and off balance. Accomplishing both mundane and important tasks was impossible. Whereas just a few weeks earlier, I was rapt with work and family life, I now found myself unfocused and isolated. 

Fortunately, biology was at work to help me through. We all have a biological drive for play. Not just children, but adults too. We need to play. I don’t think I realized just how much play helped me until I examined my play history. In his book, Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul, Dr. Stuart Brown suggests an exercise in reflecting on one’s play history as a way to understand how play has affected one’s life course.

Benefits of Play

In recalling my experiences with play, I lingered over the heartbreaking time not long after the pandemic started when my mom passed, and I was responsible for sifting through her clothes. I had to decide what clothes to keep, donate, and discard. It was a daunting project. More than six months passed, and I still hadn’t even so much as opened a drawer or looked in her closet. Eventually, my husband retrieved my mom’s clothes from her house and brought them to ours, believing this would ignite my energy. Three more months passed before I pushed forward into the painful, albeit meaningful process of letting go.

What started out as a slow and tedious process became a period of exploration and creation – two hallmarks of play. I decided I wasn’t limited to keep, donate, or discard her clothes. I could also repurpose. I wanted to celebrate and honor Mom, so I set about making some of her clothes into garlands. I spent hours sorting her clothes into appealing color combinations, cutting the fabric into strips, and then tying them into knots on twine. Often, I holed up in a room for long stretches, sometimes well into the early morning making these garlands.

Dr. Brown defines play as, “an absorbing, apparently purposeless activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of self-consciousness and sense of time. It is self-motivating and makes you want to do it again.” Importantly, for the first time in nearly a year, I was in a playful state of mind. Ultimately, I made three garlands. Two garlands hang over fireplaces in our home and one beautified a tent at Mom’s celebration-of-life ceremony and now hangs in the Thinkering Lab.

This play-history vignette reminds me that play is transformative. It helped me change in response to a difficult life experience. It worked both on my brain and in my heart. Making garlands helped me to achieve a more playful mindset. My husband and I tinkered in our garden, made a decorative signpost for our backyard, and (once it was safe) played with our grandsons. Over time, I began to see the benefits of play in my life. I started to perform better in my personal and professional life, I felt that my burdens had been eased, I regained my focus, I expressed my creativity, and I felt increasingly more optimistic.

I often talk with families about the importance of play for children. But let’s not forget, play has the power to transform our lives, and therefore, is crucial in the development of humans at all stages of life.

Play is powerful.

Try It!

Conduct an audit of your play history by reflecting on the following questions:

What brought you joy and got you excited as a child?

What brings you joy and gets you excited today?

What’s one thing can you do today to add play to your life?

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