When was the last time you finger painted, played marbles, blew bubbles, flew a kite, skipped, wore a silly costume, played a kazoo, put on music and danced around the house, examined the clouds for animal lookalikes, played hopscotch, squished PlayDoh into weird shapes, collected shells on the seashore, squeezed sand between your toes, or built castles on the beach?
Likely, it was too long ago.
If you’re old enough to remember days before electronic devices took over our entertainment time and became mesmerizing babysitters, you might recall some of your most pleasurable play times. One of mine was rolling sideways down the grassy side of the Mississippi River levee, and laughing all the way down, then getting up and doing it all over again.
It was pure pleasure, without constraint, or control by others, and without a point to prove. Nothing was measured, nothing accomplished, and there was no pressure to perform or conform, but only the freedom of self-abandonment in play. How often today can we say that about any activity of ours? How often do we play?
Sadly, not enough. According to mountains of evidence from recent studies, and despite the numbers of people, young and old, who spend time engaged in social media and games on electronic devices, many adults as well as children have forgotten how to play. Technology has usurped much of whatever free time we might otherwise have.
Psychologists tell us that play is unstructured, not goal-driven or stressful, and is something we’re not obligated to do. It can be guided by natural curiosity, a sense of discovery, or mere frivolity without consequences. Play gives us the opportunity to enhance our creativity or imagination. It's essential for the healthy development of children. Yet play time for children is declining, partly because of adults’ increasing control over their activities, says Peter Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston College. With that decline, he says, so is the mental health of children.
No matter our age, psychologists say, play has benefits for all, like relieving stress, adding joy, improving brain function, increasing creativity and productivity, improving relationships, and even helping to heal emotional wounds. In the interest of health and sanity, we need a balance of work and play.
One summer day when I was relaxing and watching the Gulf of Mexico waters in Alabama, I noticed three middle-aged women friends sitting nearby on the sand. They were collected around a sizeable pit they had dug with their hands and plastic cups. They were quietly engrossed and delighted in uncovering small, beautiful, interesting seashells. What would they do with the shells, I asked. Probably nothing, one woman said. It was just fun to play in the sand and find them.
Sand has been called one of the very best nature-made toys for children, and if for children, why not for adults? World renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano who designed the Centre Pompidou in Paris, also taught people how to build sandcastles and had a longtime relationship with sand. “Making sandcastles was my training in fantasy,” he said, and he called building one a “totally useless operation” because it isn’t made to last. It is a way to “lighten the heart and bring a bit of happiness. Happy hands, happy mind.”
If you have no beach accessible, then you could get a sandbox, or even a mini Zen garden with sand and a rake. In the end though, apparently how you choose to play doesn’t really matter, as long as you do.