The Importance of Play

March 29, 2009

Where an apple a day might keep you out of the doctor’s office, doing something fun every 24 hours is a great rule of thumb when difficult times come your way.  Reviewing Richard Dowden’s new book, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles

, author Pam Houston noted that by the mid 1990’s, 31 of Africa’s 53 countries had been ravaged by civil unrest or war, yet there is no word in most African languages for depression. Dowden adds, “Africa lives with death and suffering and grief every day, but to be alive is to talk and laugh, eat and drink — and dance.”

Remembering to play

Remembering to Play

Finding time to play or do one fun activity feels counterintuitive when we are struggling. Often we’ll want to put our nose to the grindstone to dig ourselves out of our troubles, or just go back to bed. A Puritan work ethic makes adding something we love seem wrong or out of place especially when the economy is out of kilter.  

 “What brings you joy?” or  “What reminds you that no matter how bad the circumstances, this world is worth the effort?”  are the two questions I like to ask when coaching a client wading through tough times. When dealing with frustration or despair it can be hard to even recall what we enjoy, let alone add it to our day.  Often I’ll hear, “I don’t know what brings me joy. All I do is work and clean the house and neither is remotely fun.”

A way to remember our favorite activities is to consider how we might have spent a free day during the ages of 9 to 13. Harvard researcher Emily Hancock detailed in her book The Girl Within

 that the “in-between” years create a brief window where many are left to their own devices. Old enough to chart a course through a summer day, yet too young to be expected to work or take on major responsibilities, we were given the time to figure out what we enjoy. So, when figuring out your daily fun pill, note what you would have done as a pre-teen!

Make play a daily rule, like brushing your teeth, since when we are struggling joy seems impractical or inappropriate.  To justify a bit of play, I try to remember that by shifting our perspective to joy we move from a fight/flight adrenaline rich state into a calmer, higher brain region. We will not only cut our body a break (adrenaline is tough on the system), but also operate at a greater level of effectiveness as we move from reptilian brain to our neocortex. So, what might seem like frivolous activities can be the most grounded when life overwhelms.

Need suggestions? Here’s some gathered favorites: 1/2 hour in nature (or in the hot tub?), play Monopoly, watch dogs playing or the birds fighting at the feeder, sing in the shower really, really loud, roller skate, dance around your kitchen, go to an art museum, hang out with good friends, garden and practice woodworking.  And, of course, there is watching the Final Four! 

At a recent workshop, a young woman shared, “After our mother died, my sisters and I arrived home for the memorial service. She died way too young and we were all a mess. One night my siblings and I went to the high school football game and cheered like wild women. We whooped and hollered and laughed until we cried. I’m sure others thought that we were drunk, instead we were probably crazy with grief.  We didn’t act at all like grieving children should. But, we really needed that night and no one in the community said a thing.”

Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs is the author of three books on cross-cultural approaches to resolving conflict and overcoming challenges:  The Way of ConflictWorst Enemy, Best Teacher  and Thriving Through Tough Times. The books integrate perennial wisdom from the world’s lasting cultural traditions with systems theory and brain research.

Dr. Combs is a management consultant, executive coach, mediator and core instructor in Montana State University’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Global Competence Certificate Program. Since 2007, she has also taught intensive leadership training to State Department-selected students, teachers and professional leaders from throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and Pakistan’s FATA region.

Related Posts