When I release my dog from an obedience session I say “Go Play” and the command sends him off frolicking. I wish I could give a similar command to the world. I believe in the restorative power of play – not just for children, but for everyone.
I’m not talking here about exercise; it is well documented that Americans need more exercise and many of us try to crowd in a session at the gym between work and a trip to the dry cleaners. That isn’t play. Neither is mandatory physical education which, in my day, involved smelly uniforms, calisthenics, and frequent demonstrations of my incompetence.
Play is the release from rational thought. Play involves giggles and guffaws. Play is serious silliness and is probably understudied – but studying play may, itself, be pointless. To look for the “purpose” of play is to defeat the purpose. Play is relaxed, non-committed, willingness to look foolish. Play is full of purpose (to dig to China, for example) and without purpose (making faces in the mirror). Play can involve a tennis partner or a canine partner. Play can be intense and transformative, or lighthearted and transitory. A recent Newsweek article encouraged parents of infants to get them out of strollers and car seats and onto their tummies for playtime. Amazing, isn’t it, that we have to direct parents to let babies wriggle!
People who are hungry, who are housed in inadequate shelter, who live in fear or in a war zone may not be able to play. Basic human rights should be extended beyond the rights to vote, to free speech, and to assemble, to include the right to live without pain and preventable disease, and the right to play. I’ve watched kids in developing countries make games with rocks and holes in the sand. Certain genres of games seem to be universal: chase, hide and seek, play along the edge of an ocean or lake, digging, and wrestling come to mind.
Safe outdoor play, in an environment which fosters opportunities for running, biking, chasing, fooling around and even falling down, should be a function of government. In my world, each governmental entity – from the town council to the United Nations – would pledge to provide places for play.
Imagine the changes if the world leaders would engage in a little word play before discussions (“Putin, Cootin, foo footin, banana fanna foo fanna”) or an icebreaker before serious negotiations (“No, Condi, you can’t use your hands as you pass the orange to the Prime Minister.”)
I believe that play is critical for good mental health, for developing friendships, and yes, for world peace!
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.