Family Mission Statement – Part 8: Play
Play is valued little in our culture. Let me explain. It is difficult to refute that life has changed more in the past 150 years than it did cumulatively in the previous thousands. The simple, pastoral, self sufficient life has given way to a fast paced, highly educated, and others dependent life. Obviously, technology is a factor, but much before that, industrialization changed the terrain of how people eat, sleep, work, learn, and play.
For adults, a mindset of work before play has set in with an industrialized economy. My fear is that we’ve transferred this mindset to children at a premature age and more aggressively than we think. I would also make the case that adults should be reluctant to give up the art of play in their own lives and even practice it regularly. Let’s begin by looking at children.
Take the example of a stick. Over the course of human history, the stick has been transformed into hundreds, if not thousands, of different props, tools, objects, devices in the minds of countless children. One simple thing being imagined into multitudes of different things. If you look at the spectrum of children’s toys today, most are anything but multidimensional. Many, although done very well, provide a single, repetitive task that elevates accomplishing above imaginative play.
More than this, we’ve seen a switch from children being expected to entertain themselves to outside devices that provide the entertainment for them. Walk through the toy aisle at any department store and notice the bright colors, flashy lights, and interactive voices lining the shelves. Their goal is simple, hold captive little eyes and minds as long as possible. In a sense, we outsource a child’s own ability to explore and determine what’s fun and meaningful for themselves to instead input a predetermined and selective list of what’s fun and meaningful. We remove choice.
The goal in all of this is usually for children to learn. This is essential, but it poses the question of how much natural learning do we impair in doing so? A child will already spend around 7 hours a day, 5 days a week in an educational setting during their most developmental years. Children absorb information at a remarkable pace. Do we really need to add an education component to everything they interact with from 6 months on?
One concern, with many studies to support it, is that by pushing education on children at such a young age we are actually hindering their ability to be intrinsically motivated to learn. But more and more parents are finding that giving children the space to have fun, play and explore on their own allows them to learn and interact with what’s of interest to them. They grow a passion for learning with the ability to self teach rather than being a passive absorber of information.
There is a growing movement who believe in the reversal of the work before play mentality, especially when it comes to children. Resisting the urge to over-institutionalize a child’s upbringing allows for their own natural intuition to provide both entertainment and education together. There is no reason play and a child’s development cannot be one in the same. Which begs the question for adults of how play and our own journey can be integrated?
When the great naturalist and BBC wildlife presenter, Sir David Attenborough, is asked how he developed his interest in animals, his response is always, “How on Earth did you lose your interest in them?” We all start at a young age playfully interacting with the nature around us. As our naturalist friend points out, animals tend to top this list of what intrigues a young mind. But, to his point, most of us don’t persist in this natural instinct and lose it along the way.
There is a growing temptation as we enter adulthood to focus more on achieving success, however that may look, rather than enjoying the path to get there. We become consumed by things like life goals, status symbols, accumulating wealth, physical appearance, etc. The danger is that often times these things leave us continually wanting more and the pursuit can be endless and tireless. Many of us live hyper fast paced, chronically stressed lives, that left unchecked, steals a lot more from our souls than can be achieved or gained in physical accumulation.
Stop and smell the roses…
A phrase we often hear. But I believe play for adults can, and should, mean taking this literally and applying it daily. The world is our sandbox! Why can’t we roll down that hill we drive past every day? Why can’t we hike that trail during our lunch break? Why can’t we raise an animal for the sheer enjoyment of it?
Don’t lose your playful intuition… exercise it! Being an adult doesn’t need to mean being serious all the time. Ditch the stresses. Slow down. Smell the roses. I think I need to hear that more than anyone 🙂
Part 8 of our Family Mission Statement actually says we “enjoy playing together in nature.” Being in tune with nature was not a leisure or adventure activity for generations before but a necessary means of survival. Where people previously relied on the sights, smells, and wildlife behaviors around them to predict things like the weather, we now simply open up the weather app on our phone. Or, where our ancestors embraced a lifestyle that ebbed and flowed with the different seasons, our consistent 70 degree, year round enclosures can often blur the instinctual desire to change instep with our natural surroundings.
People and nature are integral. And neither wins when one tries to outwit or separate from the other. In the modern industrial age especially, man has a tendency to try and work against nature instead of with it. I recently stumbled across this USA today article featuring America’s 10 most “endangered” rivers. The sad part is that the listed reason for why each river had been degraded and polluted so rapidly was entirely at the hands of people – anything from mining, to conventional farming, to just poor management of projects and resources. People are killing the very planet that sustains them with life, and so few care.
Whether planned or unplanned, a key side effect to an industrial economy is to pull nature out of the mix of daily living. Our lives have become packaged, processed, and put together. Nature frees us from this. Nature allows us to see, touch, smell, and feel instead of just experience from a screen. Nature allows us to move and explore on altering terrains a concrete sidewalk just can’t imitate. Nature allows us to be attuned to the seasonal lifecycles and weather that shake up our monolithic lives in conditioned habitats. Nature connects us to the animals and plants that provide us with sustenance rather than only seeing them in their final plate ready state.
People and nature need to work together – in other words, we need to value what nature values. It is the only sustainable way forward. Playing in nature in responsible and respectful ways helps us understand what is at stake when we don’t.
I have no problem if the concepts in this post get you thinking about planning your next travel adventure around some good hiking and scenic locations. But what I would really encourage you to consider is how you can make playing together in nature with your family and friends a regular lifestyle choice. Start small and work your way up from there.
Get your hands dirty and start a garden, big or small, in your yard. Find local trails and nature areas and set aside time each week to go out and explore. Consider walking or biking to work or to run errands. Sit on the grass instead of a chair in your yard. Let your child discover on their own that grass shouldn’t be eaten. Opt to live in the smaller square footage space to be less enticed to stay indoors.
One brilliant idea Joelle shared with me from a book she is reading called “How to Raise a Wild Child” is to develop a sit spot. The concept of a sit spot is to find a spot that you regularly, if not daily, go to just sit, observe, and experience the nature around you. Watch the plants and trees as they evolve seasonally. Notice the insects, birds, and other wildlife and try to figure out what purpose each serves. Track the weather and how it affects the whole system. Bring a journal, open mind, peaceful attitude, and ambition to learn and see how your connection to the nature that surrounds you everyday is transformed.
I’m not sure I ever really defined what play is. And I’m not sure I really want to either. But the ingredients involve exploring, self teaching, making a mess, getting outdoors, basking, seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling, bending, hiking, itching, observing, perspiring, and so much more. We all have the instinct. Don’t let modern society and luxuries suppress the urge. This is an area I think we can all afford to take a step backward, to a simpler time, when people and nature worked in harmony. To reverse the negative effects our work has had on both our people and planet, our play can bridge the divide and provide a sustainable system for future generations.