In 2018, I shed the professional identity of lawyer and cast my revenue-generating lot exclusively upon my writing abilities. (Wish me luck!) Typical of me, I approached the transition intent upon educating myself about how to manage the writer’s greatest asset: Her imagination. I would say to friends, “I’m studying creativity, taking a look at what sustains creativity, what fosters greater creativity.”
That sounds quite serious, quite grown-up, and it’s very interesting reading. In reality, though, my brand of creativity–a sustained gamed of Let’s Pretend–is little more than lucrative play. I’ve taken a pastime every child should be familiar with, spinning stories from worlds that don’t exist, and turned it into a livelihood, as many other lucky people have done before me.
I did not say to my friends, “I’m off to learn how to play more exuberantly.” Or, “I’m focused on winning the Let’s Pretend gold medal in the romantic fiction long distance event, open bedroom door division!” Creativity has an improving reputation, play is for children. Among the enlightened, maybe play is for rejuvenation so we can get back to work refreshed, but I’m beginning to take issue with that definition too.
Play is serious business, as proven by even a few minutes spent with the scientific literature on the subject. Play improves memory and focus, language learning capability, problem-solving ability, math skills, and self-regulation (which our moms called self-discipline). Play can also be where we learn team work, cooperation, and both how to be a good leader, and how to spot the differences between good and bad leaders. People with good play histories are more resilient and better able to make connections between divergent concepts.
Play is so important, that when we are play-deprived in childhood, particularly deprived of self-directed, unstructured “free play,” (also known as wasting time, goofing off, or messing around), we become more anxious, depressed, and aggressive. The bad news is that children’s free play has been declining for decades, mostly from expanding schoolwork requirements, but also because of safety concerns, hovering parents, and over-scheduling of organized activities. The very bad news is that as free play has disappeared from the common childhood experience, suicide rates for children under 15 have quadrupled.
The good news is, I am the boss of me as much as anybody is the boss of me. I not only want to infuse my life with recreation–new sights, lovely people, great books–but I also want to get over the notion that play is frivolous and self-indulgent. I am VERY fortunate that my childhood play history was an embarrassment of riches, complete with my own wild woods to wander in, parents who thought television was a tool of Satan, and stacks and stacks of National Geographic magazines to pore over.
I would like for my dotage to be similarly blessed, because I am convinced that all work and no play makes us a hopeless, bored, doomed society. Play is not just for fun or a change of pace before we plod back to the salt mines, play is the engine of the ingenuity, resilience, and creativity that have allowed us to survive thus far.
How did you play as a kid? How do you play now? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amazon gift certificate, and I promise, this week, I will do a better job of responding to comments!