The Importance of Play

by | Parenting

Playtime used to be fun. When my daughter was born, play came quite naturally for both of us. It was a joyous thing and we played together all the time. Knowing what I know now, it was a critical piece of our bonding and attachment. As she got a little older and was able to start exploring and entertain herself, I let her do it… and then I started letting her do it more and more and more. In many ways, that’s a good, healthy thing and is part of the normal cycle of attachment and growing up. But, in some ways it wasn’t so good. In the process of letting her explore and entertain herself, we kind of stopped playing together. Well, let me rephrase that. It was me that stopped playing with her. She has never lost her desire to play with mom. Mom did, however, let other things get in the way.

Playtime Changed

Play (and everything else) was very different when our boys came along. They didn’t come to us as babies. They came home in big, angry bodies and had already lived a life no human should ever have to experience. Yet, they also knew precious little about how the world works. All they knew how to do was survive. They came to us attached to no one and had no desire to explore their new world. Nor did they know it was safe to do so. They also had no idea how to entertain themselves without getting in trouble and didn’t have a clue as to what to do with themselves if mom wasn’t 24/7 solely focused 100% on them.

I literally had to teach my boys to play. This came as quite a surprise to me! Both came to us via international adoption. Both had multiple play areas at their orphanages. We didn’t get to see much of anything at my older son’s orphanage. Truth be told, they weren’t real keen on us being there. They supposedly had some indoor play areas and gym equipment, but we didn’t see what condition it was really in. There was, however, some rickety old playground equipment made of rusty metal bars and old tires outside in the commons area. It was rickety, poorly anchored, and falling apart. Truthfully, it was the kind of stuff that would have been deemed a safety hazard before my mother was in grade school.

My younger son was still in a baby house that had been heavily sponsored and fairly recently remodeled through the help of a mission group. There were two indoor play areas available just for his little group of about 10 kids. One was their main gathering area. It was kind of like a great room. They had limited furniture, a TV, and tons of new toys that were all neatly arranged on high shelves and clearly there just for decoration. The other area was a generously sized, well-stocked dedicated playroom. It was full of all kinds of fun toys including dolls and balls and play kitchens and all sorts of other neat stuff. There were even a couple of Flintstone style riding cars, teeter-totters, and plastic slides. This orphanage also had several outdoor ride-on toys available along with two different very nice outdoor playground areas.

Here’s the kicker, though. The kids rarely if ever used any of what they had available at either place. A few of the older teens at my older son’s orphanage played on the bars occasionally. In fact, one of the kids was a very naturally talented gymnast. My son did know the secrets of how to climb up the main structure, but he never did much once he got up there.

The nurses took the younger kids outside pretty often, but they never really played on the equipment. In fact, they pretty much just stayed in a big group and didn’t really do much. They would occasionally wander over to check out what we were doing, but they didn’t really try to join us. I do remember one time early on in our visits watching a couple of the kids playing on some plastic riding toys, but we never saw those toys come out again. Most likely, they physically put the kids on them that one time to try to impress us. All the other times the toys were either not available or just sat there unused.

I am quite certain the kids didn’t actually spent much time in the indoor playroom either. Most of the time, the room was locked. The workers would send us in there to play with our son when it was raining outside, but every time they did, they had to go in first and move the big bedding quilts they had draped over the cars and slide to dry. Even though this room was part of his unit and part of the small 4 room area where he lived and rarely ever left, it was a completely unfamiliar room for our son and he was quite unphased by the toys that were in there.

Reality was that it didn’t matter if the stuff was old or new, shiny or rusty, broken or not, none of the kids knew what to do with any of the stuff they had available. I had to literally sit down and teach both my boys how to play after we brought them home. I had to teach them in detail what the toys were supposed to do, how they were supposed to interact with them, that it really is ok (and safe) to have fun with them, and how to play with them on their own without me. This was a critical thing for them to learn, too. Their playtime was literally the ONLY break I got for quite a long time!

As probably comes as no surprise, however, the same thing eventually happened with my boys as happened with my daughter. The more they learned to play on their own, the more I let them do it. Unfortunately, the better they got at playing on their own, the more I forgot to play with them…except I learned the hard way that just because they finally knew how to play on their own didn’t mean they knew how to play appropriately or even safely with other people.

Play is Not a Luxury

My kids have taught me something vital about play. Play is not a luxury. It is not a reward for good behavior and nor does it always need to be earned. It is also more important than a spotlessly clean house and homework!

Play is vital self-care for all humans. It is also an essential part of human development and significantly affects how children learn and process all information. Even though we big people don’t always like to admit it, it is just as vital for tweens, teens, and adults of all ages as it is for preschoolers.

Unfortunately, it is very easy for us grown-ups to forget this. Unless we put conscious effort into making it happen, playtime is almost guaranteed to be the first thing that flies out the window when we’re stressed, over-scheduled, overwhelmed, or tired. The irony is that play is also the #1 cure for all those things! Play is one of the fastest and most effective ways to turn a negative situation into a healing one. It helps dissipate contention, renew spirits, and changes situations where people are locking horns or repelling each other.

As Mr. Rogers once said:

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play really is the work of childhood. “ 

There are so many important benefits and reasons to play:

Play is a very commonly missed developmental step for hurt kids. No matter how old our kids are, or how out-of-sync things may seem with their chronological age, or even how old we are, our kids desperately need us to go back and help them through these stages. Depending on how many steps they missed, they might need to revisit the various stages of play for a long time before they can truly be able to move on and progress into more grown up roles.

Play is incredibly healing for people of all ages. So many times when I find myself super stressed and about ready to crack, I can usually attribute it to the fact that I haven’t been playing enough. Inevitably, when I forget to play, I also tend to forget to do all those other things like exercise, eating right, feeding my soul, and getting enough sleep that are also good for me and keep me functioning. Yet when I’m about to hit my breaking point, those aren’t the things I crave most.

The thing I long for most is play. Without fail, every single time I am able to get away and do it, I always come back refreshed, relaxed, and with a completely different attitude than I had when I left. I like people better…and people (especially my family) like me better, too. This is true even if I come home exhausted because I didn’t actually eat or sleep well while I was away. Once I’ve taken time to play, though, I have the resolve to get back on the wagon, keep going, and take better care of myself in all areas of life.

Play done right resets the system and reconnects fragmented pieces of ourselves. Taking a break, stepping away from the daily grind, and playing for a little while calms everyone’s internal systems. It allows for rational thinking to come back. It allows the release of happy endorphins in the brain. It allows time for intense emotions to settle and perspectives to change. When we engage with other people in play, relationships change for the better. Attachment happens (on both sides…them to us and us to them), marriages become stronger, and healing begins. As we play together, we often find out we actually DO still like each other and it is possible to be kind, patient, and loving towards each other.

“I think it’s very important – no matter what you may do professionally – to keep alive some of the healthy interests of your youth. Children’s play is not just kids’ stuff. Children’s play is rather the stuff of most future inventions.” – Fred Rogers

Play Done Right

What is “play done right?” Play is play, isn’t it? No. Play done right is play that works for you and your family. It is play that is fun, a little bit silly, and works within the parameters of one’s physical and emotional developmental level and the boundaries EVERYONE (especially hurt kids) need in order to feel safe while doing it.

Play done right isn’t stressful. It’s genuinely fun. It doesn’t have to be expensive, it doesn’t have to be flashy. It’s just pretty much anything that steps outside the daily grind of life and brings laughter, smiles, peace, refreshment, and makes those who engage in it feel better than they would have had they not done so.

For many families like mine, theme parks, birthday parties, sleepovers, play dates, crowds, noise, flashing lights, Halloween, competitive sports, Jet Skis, and traveling the world with or without our kids are things that simply don’t work. Most of those things are extremely overstimulating, lacking in structure, and rather anxiety producing for my sweeties. They may be fun for some families, but they aren’t for ours. In fact, they are quite the opposite. They are FAR more stressful than fun…and are often a disaster waiting to happen. That is not fun or worth it for anyone. Therefore, we don’t do them.

What does work for us, though, is enjoying a simplified life within the boundaries that work for our family. Our version of play might look like a Sunday afternoon walk, a picnic in the park, a bike ride, a hike, or taking pictures of beautiful things. It might be a board game or a therapeutic or educational game. It might mean going out to lunch with a friend, or even better, the husband, while the kids are in school.

It might also mean the kids “free play time” can only happen outside in the yard or in the cul-de-sac in short spurts. If the neighbor kids happen to be out there and there are some adult eyes watching them, they can play together (and often do.) Especially when the kids were younger, playtime often only lasted 10 minutes before it was too much. As they have gotten older and more stable, they might be able to handle 30 minutes or more before they need to check in and have a brain break. It all just depends on how well they’re doing that day and how much they can be trusted.

As for vacations, we have found that keeping those low-key works best for us. We usually opt for exploring the more quiet places of the world. We love visiting quiet little beach towns, national parks, and going for off-road adventures. We also enjoy visiting museums, bird refuges, and small, out of the way towns in the middle of nowhere. All of these things tend to be peaceful and wide open with plenty of room to run. As a bonus, they always have beautiful, funky, and/or interesting things to see and do.

One doesn’t have to go on vacation or even spend a lot of money in order to play. In fact (as we’ve learned the hard way) if the only time the family plays together is when we go on vacation, that said vacation likely isn’t going to go very well, especially in the beginning, and will end up being more stressful than healing and everyone will want to just turn around and go home.

Though we have finally conquered Disneyland, we didn’t attempt it for many years. For us, it was far more than “just” a vacation, too. It was a celebration, a conquest, and an accomplishment similar to scaling Mount Everest…and we actually had fun doing it, too. Just like everything else, we made it work by doing it our way. We stayed close to the park in a 2-room kitchenette suite with plenty of room for everyone to stretch out and relax. We went “off-season”, got to the park early in the mornings before the rest of the crowds got there, and took full advantage of the Fast Pass system. We also took a long break from the park mid-day to eat lunch and rest for a bit in our hotel room. Probably most importantly, we split up our park days with a trip to the beach.

Play is becoming a Lost Art

Have you noticed that play is almost becoming a lost art? Trauma or not, many kids in today’s society don’t know how to actually play anymore…and many of the adults who are parenting them don’t either. Our fast-paced world is full of gadgets, gizmos, and plentiful variety of passive entertainment options. It is often easier to play video games, watch a movie, or chat online than it is to go outside and play or have an actual face-to-face conversation with someone. Furthermore, our lives are full of so many other urgent tasks that we just can’t seem to fit it in our schedule.

When was the last time you heard someone sitting on the sidelines say something like “I’m too old for that!”…or  “I’m fine just watching.”…or “It’s just not my thing. I’ve heard these a thousand times and from almost as many people over the years. I’ve even said them myself at times.

Granted, there are sometimes good reasons for just watching…but sometimes statements like this are more of an excuse than an actual reason. As I’ve watched people, I have noticed that they are often said very dismissively and almost always said before that person even tries to engage in whatever activity it is they’re watching. Could these statements really mean “I don’t want to play because I don’t know how to play… I never learned how to play…I’m afraid to play… I’m afraid to learn…I’m afraid I’ll look stupid, I’m afraid people will see me and know that I don’t know how to play…and I don’t even know where or how to start playing even if I did want to learn how to do it!”

One of my favorite things to do is watch people. I learn a lot about humanity and myself by doing it. It’s not hard to see that life has beaten a lot of people up and sucked the sunshine out of them. Others have become so busy and lost in our technology dependent, do it now society that they don’t remember how refreshing play is. Many have never learned how to be truly comfortable in their own skin…and there are a whole lot of adults out there who have no idea how to engage socially with other people. I’ve been surprised to see myself in many of their stories. I’ve also been quite surprised to learn that I myself have fit quite nicely into several of those categories.

I’ve noticed something else, too. Especially for us parents of trauma, I believe we often intentionally choose not to play. Sometimes the LAST thing we want to do is PLAY with mouthy, obnoxious, selfish, aggressive, grumpy, kid (or spouse). There are also days when we’re just completely exhausted from trying to keep up with everything that we just don’t have the energy or desire to engage in anything…so we shut down and avoid interacting with people on any level. We disengage from life and shut down as a form of self-preservation.

Have you ever noticed what happens when we do that, though? We become kind of like polarized magnets, don’t we? Instead of attracting the good and bringing out the best or what we want to see in each other, we end up repelling each other.  …And thus begins the “trauma tornado”. Things start to go a little nuts, the winds start to howl, then we get our panties all in a bunch, we get frustrated with each other, the drama starts to rise, and before we know it, we’ve hit F-5 status.

Learning How to Play

The neat thing about play is that it really is an easy skill to learn. It’s also a skill that if regularly used, has tremendous power to turn attitudes, behavior, and relationships completely around. All it takes is the courage to do it…to try it…to step out of our comfort zone and let our own guards long enough to let loose and be a little bit silly. Not fake, obnoxious, or destructive, mind you, but with a playful attitude and willingness just to get out there and try it.

Perhaps it starts with getting your hands a little messy, or getting a little sand in your shoes. Maybe it starts with kicking a ball or coloring on the driveway with sidewalk chalk. If you really can’t figure out how to get started on your own, the best teachers are almost always going to be kids. They are masters at their trade and LOVE teaching adults how to be part of their world. This is true even for attachment-disordered kids! When in doubt, follow their lead. Ask them how to float a boat in a stream. Ask them to teach you how to build a castle out of blocks. Ask them to teach you how to run through the sprinklers, jump in a puddle, or play soccer. They will proudly teach you…and both your hearts will sing a happy song in the process.

It doesn’t matter if you succeed or fail at it. It doesn’t matter if you’re the only adult out there or if you think you look “silly.” The truth is that you don’t look silly and chances are the other adults watching are saying “Gosh, I wish I could get out there and do that!” Really, though, it doesn’t matter what they think, anyway. Just keep doing it and keep telling yourself “It’s ok if I never learned to play. I’m doing it now! It’s not too late to learn, I’m not dead which means I’m not too old. It’s still important and I’m learning now…because I’m worth it, my kids are worth it, my family is worth it, my marriage is worth it, my job is worth it…and it really is kind of fun!”

Making Play a Goal

We have realized at my house that all the members of my family have become pretty good at entertaining ourselves and otherwise doing our own thing for…um…yes, usually way too long. Even when we’re all together in the same location, we are often doing more parallel play (playing alongside each other) type things than actually engaging with and playing with each other.

Learning to play TOGETHER is one of the goals we have been working on for quite some time now. It isn’t as easy as it sounds! Sometimes we do really well…and sometimes we completely forget to do it. We are all still at different stages of learning, too. Some of us still aren’t comfortable playing on any level and all of us are still working on the cooperative play thing…which often translates into cooperative everything. We’ve come a long way, but we still have plenty of room to keep improving.

One thing I do is deliberately create opportunities for kids to play together both successfully and peacefully. Even though my kids are getting older, they still often need supervision (most kids do if we’re really honest about it!) More importantly, though, I have been working on playing more WITH my kids. It’s hard. I’m good at parallel play just like everyone else is…but sometimes its still hard to get down and actually play with them.

My challenge both to myself and to anyone reading this is to get out there and play today.  Drop all that stuff that you’re fighting about or that seems so important in this moment and take a few minutes to truly and honestly play.  Try something new. Try something silly. Have your kids teach you how to play a game…and then play it by their rules. Or, perhaps you could challenge your spouse to a round of one of your kids favorite video games. It doesn’t matter what you do.  Just make a point of doing something fun!

I’d love to hear what you did today and how it turned out in the comments, too!

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