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By Katy Yanda
Nothing lights up the brain better for kids, teens and adults.
I partnered and married a man to whom play is second nature, or maybe first. In addition to being smart and caring, Chris is funny. He is goofy and weird and creative. He is, much of the time, pretty fun to be around. His sense of play can light up a room and certainly a day and has since I’ve known him, long before parenthood. With our children, 5 and 8 years old, the course of their adventures takes them through costumes, labyrinths of building blocks, mini-movies complete with green screen, rhyming games, joke marathons and trampoline tournaments … just to name a few. It is a wonderful scene of which to be a part.
It also makes it, at times, frustrating to parent with him. I often feel like the “bad cop,” walking the difficult line between partner, parent and playmate. The refrains of “Come on guys, we’re late — again!” “Dinner is on the table,” “Pick up all of these toys and yesterday’s, please” are constant and I feel, perhaps unfairly, one-sided. There are chores and timetables that need to be kept to keep our households running. There are barely enough hours in the day to do the minimum of keeping everyone fed and where they are supposed to be. Play and “real life” can feel disconnected.
I was reminded recently, in a class at the Santa Fe Community College, that play can be — should be — included in everything we do. Our adult lives, with and without kids, can be filled with play. Dr. Stuart Brown’s TED Talk, “Play is more than just fun,” was a re-lesson of what we all know intuitively — that my husband Chris’ sense of the world, and play within it, is essential. According to Brown and the research he presents, play is fundamental to human development, not just when we are children but throughout our lives.
Based on hundreds of hours of observing animals in the wild working with Jane Goodall and teams at National Geographic, Brown gives vivid and multiple examples of play throughout animals’ lifespans. Animals as diverse as polar bears, dogs, mountain goats, chimps, crows and rats constantly engage in play, from youth to maturity. Play can transform predator to playmate (as observed with a polar bear and a wolf), relieve tension, express curiosity, show the functionality of an object and teach a myriad of other lessons.
For us, human animals, play is just as crucial. “Nothing lights up the brain like play,” says Brown. Through research using MRIs and fMRIs (magnetic resonant imaging and functional magnetic resonant imaging), adults and children at play are shown to be connecting and building all parts of their brains. According to studies in the varied fields of neurophysiology, developmental and cognitive psychology, evolutionary and molecular biology, the National Institute for Play says, “Existing research describes how patterns and states of play shape our brains, create our competencies, and ballast our emotions.”
It starts when a mother or father looks at their infant and begins to sing, coo, chortle and move the baby’s hands and feet. The parent’s behavior is automatic; the child reacts. There is an eruption of joy that, in my experience, continues for years. Adults can let loose play behavior with kids that most of us cannot (with marked exceptions) do on our own. When my children were born, I began to sing, something I had never done for anyone else. Like other new parents, I found myself on the floor a lot, under tent blankets, hanging from monkey bars, running around parks, digging tunnels in sand, playing hide and seek between trees, sometimes even in trees. But as our kids get older, I’m not doing these things quite as much. I find myself saying, with to be quite honest a bit of relief, “They’re old enough to play on their own.” As children age, adults’ impetus to play loses its strength, though it remains just as valuable.
How did play become the province solely of children and parents with young children?
Art and literature show that play has been a part of the adult human experience throughout the span of illustrated and written history. All different kinds of play — body and movement play, object play, social play, storytelling and narrative, creative, imaginative and pretend play. Through play we develop trust with one another, create bonds, develop social structures, explore risky areas, discover new ideas, make connections, release stress, build joy and lay new neural pathways through movement and emotions. In the busy, sometimes chaotic, technology-obsessed 21st century — is there a risk of losing these critical points of growth? Are we adults forgetting how to play?
There is a significant amount of discussion about how children are losing play time and play space. Many children do not have access to nature; there is less recess time, less unstructured time and, in many communities, no safe public space to play. We need to keep working on solutions that create and keep these spaces. Children who are allowed substantial play time are better problem solvers as adults; research says they are healthier. Play is essential for kids’ mental, social and emotional development.
It seems it is also essential for adults and those on the bridge to adulthood: adolescents. Among educators working with middle school and high school students, there is a trend of encouraging goofiness. When teens are allowed to clown around, social rules disappear. Experts who work with teens, at the age when they are becoming hyperconscious of their appearance and social cues, say “being silly” allows teens to be themselves and throw off the mantles of adulthood they are trying on.
Looking at the research made me wonder: What would more play look like in our lives? Our workplaces? Our staff meetings? Our schools? When our son was having trouble with other kids in his preschool, we were advised to wrestle with him, to roughhouse as much as we could. This was a way to show him the boundaries between acceptable play and hurting someone. It also felt great for us, his parents. When our daughter is in the middle of an emotional tantrum, turning on her latest favorite song for a spontaneous dance party almost always moves her mood. We talk about the whys and hows of the tantrum later, when she is feeling better. When we all feel better.
Play lights up our brains. Engenders better problem-solving skills. Lessens stress. Makes us healthier in the long run and happier in the moment. Surrounds us with laughter.
As we add more ways to involve play into our quotidian rhythms, Chris and I are also fine-tuning ways to distribute parenting and play roles. All reasons for me to say yes next time the children holler from the trampoline, “Mama, come JUMP.”
Katy Yanda wrote this for our Winter 2016-2017 issue, back when she was Tumbleweeds’ assistant editor and her children were 5 and 8.