Play It Forward

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!

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43 comments on “Play It Forward

  1. We lived on a busy road so playing in the street such games as stick ball and kick the can were not an option. I mainly played either in the house or in the back yard with my dog, Bambi. She was an adorable mixed breed I got from my piano teacher. Playing the piano became another source of fun for me especially when my mother and I played duets.
    As an adult my play is centered around quilting. It’s a completely addictive skill, selecting fabrics, using scraps and designing the quilts. I also enjoy, as a part of play, reading for pleasure. Your books are a main stay for me, but I’ve latched on to other authors such as Louise Penny (Inspector Gamache series) and Elizabeth George (Inspector Lynley Series).

    • This is interesting. I’ve lately watched every episode of Inspector Lynley I could get my hands on, and I’m a big fan of Charles Finch (Inspector Lenox), who claims Louise on his family tree.
      I think I would like quilting by hand, particularly the quilting bee aspect of it. It’s a quiet, pretty, comfy art, and I’ve seen some breathtaking quilts, too.

      • Oh if you haven’t read the DI Lynley novels, you’re missing both the enjoyment and the heartache. I bought the full set of DVDs. While they are enjoyable in themselves, they cannot portray what I believe makes Elizabeth George a superior writer in her genre. She addresses social justice issues in each book as she develops the ensemble of central characters. Heartbreaking, thoughtful and twisty-good!

  2. As a child I always preferred pretend and imagination games to physical ones. And I always seemed to be aware of what a powerful tool my imagination was. One of my earliest memories is of having a nightmare one night and waking up crying. I didn’t want to go back to sleep because I was afraid of the nightmare. My mother told me a secret. I should stop thinking of the nightmare. She told me that I should think of something wonderful that I would enjoy. It would banish the nightmare and I would fall asleep. It worked then, and at the age of 74, it still works.

    I wish you so much good fortune with your writing career. If people can make fortunes playing children’s games (baseball, football, etc.) I don’t see why you shouldn’t be able to.

    I love what you do.

    • Mary, I’m doing OK, thanks. In my list of nightly gratitudes, I FREQUENTLY mention the people who buy my books. Readers are my employers, and I am privileged to work for them.
      I was well into adulthood before I stumbled onto your mom’s trick, but my twist is to envision me riding a dressage test, which starts and ends with a “halt/salute.” I ride around in bed, following the test patterns, as long as I need to for the nightmare to get back in her stall.

  3. I remember playing softball, Simon Says and Hide n’ Seek in our neighborhood. We played outside a lot and maybe watched tv for thirty minutes before bed. I read a lot and that was my quiet time.

    My adult play consists of dog school- with my friends. We have a cup of tea and catch up while the dogs play. I have learned so much from my friends— about people, behavior and science. New ways to look at things. Also, I walk almost every day at lunch- this clears my head from work. I come back from the walk refreshed and ready to tackle the next 4 hours of work.

    I have noticed when I skip class or my walk that my day is off- things are not quite right. I realize the value of my time.

    • I recall some sandlot baseball, at which I was no good AT ALL, as well as hide and seek, capture the flag, king of the hill, imaginative play as well. We were lost kids, and the climbing trees were our boats. We were space travelers, shipwreck victims, and cowgirls… all outside, all unsupervised. I shudder for children who don’t have that kind of freedom.

  4. I like what Mary T. said about nightmares. My mother told me that as it was my dream, I could always change it. It didn’t/doesn’t always work, but occasionally, what a story! And my parents changed my sleep environment so I didn’t wake the house screaming.

    I have severe pollen allergies and exercise induced asthma, so I spent a lot of time inside. I read obsessively. (Still can.) That said, I had a bike, minimal supervision and the library was 2 miles away. We also lived in a neighbourhood with 5 acres of neglected alfalfa and apple trees, a dead end street and alleyway, and a gaggle of kids. My mother went to rummage sales for small sized evening gowns, hats, heels and best of all, two lengths of velvet and a couple of ruffled white sheer curtains. My younger sister directed the theatrics. We had free use of the record player and a wide variety of records my parents had been given by the local radio station. We found more in one of the neighbour’s sheds.

    Now we have a puppy.

    • For a while, we also had a dress-up box, though I can’t recall making much use of it. We did put on a few shows in the basement, and occasionally, I’d pester the neighbors to walk their dogs. Note to self: When you’re seven years old, the basset hound walks you.

  5. I sang. And sang with my sister. Our Mom was an opera singer so singing was in our blood and we just did it. I can remember the first song I sang by myself (I was two–and Mom was in the hospital giving birth to Sissy. One of the grandmas got me to sing it to her over the phone), “Me and My Teddy Bear.” We had a swing set in the backyard and we sang while we swang. We sang everything we heard, some songs our Mom or aunts or Grandmas taught us, and jingles we heard on TV. When we got to school (and both of us joined the children’s choir at church when I was six and Sissy was 4), we taught each other songs. Sometimes, people walking by would stop and listen but we only nominally paid attention.

    We played with babydolls and Barbies. Played games–board games and hopscotch and jump rope–and rode bikes and scooters. There ended up to be six of us, and we played together for a good portion of our childhoods but as the older of us grew up, not as much.

    With my own kids, I noticed something strange; their friends had no imaginations. My boys would have a playdate and their friends would have Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Ghostbuster figures and would act out what they saw on TV, not make their own adventures with the dolls. One of my sons didn’t want to go to his friend’s house any more when he was chastised for not knowing the dialogue for a Ghostbuster’s cartoon! My kids only watched PBS, had legos and blocks and cars and toy instruments and didn’t KNOW the script of things their peers thought important.

    I believe creativity can be taught but you HAVE to set up kids–and adults too–by letting them experiment, not having lots of outside stimulents and never telling them something they are doing is *wrong*. It’s all *right*!

    • My grandfather was a talented woodworker and built a Barbie-doll scale doll house for each set of granddaughters. My sister and I had a lot of fund with that thing, and the house number was 1964, the year “Santa Claus” gave it to us for Christmas. I wasn’t so keen on playing “Barbies,” but time spent with my sister doing Let’s Pretend was always fun.
      And yeah, the imagination thing…
      One of the best decisions my parents made was to put off getting us a TV until we were well into school age, and then to forbid any television on school nights. I’m probably an author precisely because they made those choices.

    • And with respect to the singing, I think that’s another skill that’s best learned early and by example. The Mennonite congregation where I attended sang four-part a capella hymns, and if you grew up in that tradition, you could hear the harmony and just sing it by ear. If you didn’t, you were stuck on melody for the longest time.

  6. From ages one through nine, I lived in one of those idyllic neighborhoods with lots of kids who all pretty much got along and had fun. There was a woods behind the houses on our side of the street, and it wasn’t a dense woods. There were horse trails running through it, and our moms could easily see us from their kitchen windows. We built forts from fallen trees, played cowboys and Indians, and just had grand adventures. We also put on plays and talent shows, played kickball, rode our bikes, roller-skated, and when it snowed, our parents took positions at the top and bottom of the hill where our street ended, to watch for cars as we flew downhill on our sleds. We loved movie night at our neighbors’ house, where we sat on their back lawn and watched old black and white movies projected on the house. I was never without a friend at that time. When we moved (divorce & remarriage), my new neighborhood was very much lacking in the fun department, and I kind of felt as though my childhood was over, for several reasons. Maybe that is why I love reading so much – it gives you whatever companionship, scenario, era, etc., that you want or need in your life. My mom used to get up during the night and tell me to turn off the flashlight, stop reading, and go to sleep because I had school the next day! Now my husband will often do the same (no flashlight since I read on my iPad), and it always makes me smile. Okay, I’m almost at the end of the chapter, I’ll say, but that 6:50 am alarm is looming, and I’ll finally give in. So, for me, reading is fun, also wine tastings adventures, and Disney vacations with the hubby and kids (WDW, Disneyland, Aulani Resort). I also love crafts and decorating, home & church. Get-togethers with friends. Date night. It’s all good! 🙂

    • That sounds like a wonderful childhood and I’m so sorry it ended the way it did. You had the memory of joy, though, which helps you find the joy going forward. When I was in my thirties, and heading for major depression, I recalled how happy I’d been as a kid on a horse. Got me a horse, and swerved that ditch. Phew!

  7. My daughter goes to a high school that has a “wellness” period. It is basically recess. They can go outside and walk to a neighboring park, hang out and talk, play board games, use it like study hall etc. I great deal of what she comes home talking about is what she did in wellness, e.g. the goofy things friends said or did, the long walk they took, or something she had time to explore just out of curiosity. They have a longer day but free time, downtime, and study time are built into their day and once she is home the evening is free for piano or her own writing or bananagrams etc. I like that it models a schedule that I feel is healthier than what is seen as the standard “productive” adulting.

    I have a hard time prioritizing anything but reading in my downtime, but I am trying to play baseball with my youngest (my skill level inspires a lot of laughs all around) and word games with my oldest. Kids and animals are great play inspiration.

    • Sounds like a very forward-thinking school. Google has done big studies of how to get the most productivity out of their teams, and it turns out that after a couple hours of task oriented work, we pretty much poop out and need a break, or we’ll just go through the motions for the rest of the day. We also have a natural dip in focus and energy after lunch, and that was precisely when, in elementary school, we were all turned loose on the playground.
      I cannot imagine who thought ditching recess was a good idea, but apparently somebody–or a few somebody’s–have gotten away with it.

  8. I had a sand box, tire swing, bicycle & my Matchbox car set was the envy of the boys because my folks gave me a whopping cash prize for every A I brought home on my report card. I still have a scar on one knee from being “unhorsed” off my bicycle when we decided to try King Arthur & his knight jousting using long cardboard tubes left in the trash. No gun violence in the news, so we played cowboys & Indians with cap pistols. Everyone on my street wanted to be indians since their costumes were clearly superior. Football wasn’t very popular as the girls were bigger than the boys on our street and we’d gang up to tackle the boys. Roller skates tore the soles off our shoes & got discarded as there were too many expansion joints on the sidewalk and we came to sudden knee-scraping stops. The street wasn’t paved in those days. Just graded and sprayed down with a tar mix every few years. Lots of climbing trees as developers didn’t clear cut. The library was two miles from my street and kids rode all over town alone on bikes, so we’d pile paper grocery sacks in our baskets and ride home with sacks of books. No sugary drinks unless you found enough returnable bottles for deposit, so we drank out of hoses. Snacks grew on fruit trees and you knew which neighbors let kids pick and eat and which chased you off because they canned their fruit.

    • How marvelous!
      One of my friends is six foot seven, and has to occasionally mention that tall men are disproportionately likely to end up as CEOs… I came across a study that said a) until age fifteen, girls are, on average, as tall or TALLER than boys, and as fast, strong, and agile or more so than boys. Further, B) the only men who don’t have the experience of EVER being of equal size and ability with female peers are the tall guys. As a consequence, C) those men tend to be more confident/arrogant than their shorter peers, because the women have never been able to physically put them in their places.
      It’s a theory.

  9. I was very fortunate that most of my childhood was spent when not at school on the farm on which my father was foreman .We lived in a small cottage on the land surrounded by farm animals.Most of my playmates were boys so I soon became a tomboy,we played cowboys and indians knights war games adventure seekers explorers we built spaceships and castles and Played Robin Hood and hid in the trees.Our imaginations took us every where.The only drawback to this was that when I was ten years old I learnt that being a tomboy was not always beneficial.I was at school and it was playtime,it was decided a game of kiss and run between girls and boys would take place If the girls got caught by a boy she must give him a kiss.I ran so fast and far no boy caught me.I saw some girls tripping over on purpose or not trying very hard.I was the only girl not to be kissed.I soon realised I had played the game wrong!!many years later I grin to myself but I know my childhood was perfect and gave me a sound foundation in my adult life.My grandchildren keep me young I love to play __only slower.Have a fulfilled New Year Grace.

    • Wow, what a metaphor… if you can keep up with the boys, you don’t get kissed unless you play the game.I hope that’s changing, but we could do down a whole rabbit hole about boys NOT being encouraged to read stories featuring female protagonists, while girls read stories with all kinds of protagonists. Then we wonder why some men lack empathy…

  10. All it takes for me to switch from boring to playtime is a visit from my little grandkids. I become a racecar driver and a dinosaur hunter or a

    cowboy! It’s amazing and wonderful.

  11. I am a bit older than you, Grace, and I grew up without TV, except I do remember watching “Romper Room,” “Howdy Doody,” and “Captain Kangaroo,” but nothing at night. We played outside all the time. I have 3 younger sisters and a younger brother and because my Dad was in the Air Force, we moved every couple of years. So my siblings were my main gang. I do remember we roamed around the neighborhoods and Mom would ring a cowbell (literally) when it was dinner time. It’s amazing that I even read outdoors (I loved getting my Scholastic Magazine during the summers and reading it outside in the yard) since I don’t like going outside much these days (mostly because of bugs). We had dogs (outside only) and we played with them, too. I no longer remember exactly what we did but we were outside all the time and very active. I think I was lucky to grow up then.

    Nowadays, I mostly read for play (I get to travel in time and space and imagination) and I read about a book a day, but I also quilt a little and I play Solitaire on the computer. I still don’t watch that much TV, except for PBS. I never was a “work my fingers to the bone” type and I love being retired.

    • My mother also rang the cowbell to signal us to get home for dinner. There’s no other sound like it. If it was my night to set the table, then ringing the cowbell was my job too. How odd, that both of our moms would come up with the same ritual, but then, it WORKED.

  12. Both the places I lived growing up had some wide open spaces (and wooded spaces) to run and play in – I was lucky in that. We would run around doing all sorts of things including building forts (and houses) out of tumbleweeds. We also had plenty of board games, cards, and books that we made ample use of when we weren’t outside. These days I spend much less time playing outside but still plenty of time reading.

    • We had tons of space to play outside in too, including wild nature. You remind me, though, that when the weather got too miserably cold, we would also play spoons, hearts, I-doubt-it, the quiet game, Monopoly (does anybody ever finish a game of monopoly?) and the all time family fave… CRIBBAGE!

  13. Happy Monday! As a child I loved to pretend and read. We played pretend scenarios based upon books we had read, TV shows we liked or what we generated from our imaginations. I loved wired hobbies like collecting a list of names that I liked. I would then research these names, their origins and variations. I read and researched things I liked Mary Queen to Duncan including the ties to MacBeth and Edward the Confessor. I studied scientific terms because I read doctor nurse romances. I just loved to play Monopoly, Scrabble and Easy Money. It was fun. Thank you for your great books! Have a blessed day!

    • It’s interesting how some of our upbringings emphasizes outdoor play, and some indoor play, but an element of imagination seems to figured prominently in both.

  14. I grew up in a small town in north central PA, an hour from anywhere “big.” Growing up we rode our bikes around town till midnight, swam in the creek, played kickball, and spent a lot of time participating in after-school activities. In my family, we had to spend at least an hour outside each day – even in the dead of winter! Now when I want to play, I hike. My sisters (and now, my daughter) and I LOVE to put on 80s music and dance and head bang! There’s just something about being with my sisters that brings out the kid in me. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    • My mom loved to dance. She’d put on Herb Albert or early Beatles and just cut loose. I never had that kind of confidence, but she could not sit still if good music was playing. At family reunions, my siblings like to dance, though that’s usually after the bar has opened, and we are not the dancefloor talents we used to be.

  15. As a kid – it was barbies or running around outside and on the playground. As an adult – we camp with family and friends and play board games…and I love puzzles!

    • Some of the western contingent of my family does big camping, with annual get-togethers in places like Moab, assembling a rotating crew of regulars. That does sound fun to me, with the right equipment. Back East, camping weather is all too often bugs, snakes, rain, stinkin’ humidity, more bugs… not my cuppa tea.

  16. Healthy play is like beautiful art, it nourishes and expands the soul. My favorite play as a child was books where I could escape to a better place (my mom was very troubled). I still love books where characters grow, learn, and care about each other. Thanks, Grace

    • And that, I contend, is the essential appeal of romance. Nobody gets to that happily ever after without growing, learning, and becoming more the best person they can be than they were at the beginning of the books. Some author buddies were having a big talk about why we end up with clinch covers, or something more explicit, and one answer was: Because the rest of what we write about is so complicated…

  17. Riding our bikes outside and playing baseball, as much younger playing with my Barbies plus reading Dr. Seuss loved books as a kid

    • I had one bike as a kid–rusty, red, probably a hand me down–but I loved that bike, and to this day don’t know why anybody would get on a bike that doesn’t have coaster brakes. Those handbrakes are not for me.

  18. Childhood being further away than I ever dreamed it would be, I still remember games of pretend that kept me and my little sister occupied for hours. Of course, we played “house” and took care of our dolls as we thought mothers should. Our dolls were often paper dolls which let us dress them for as many occasions as we could imagine with only a snip of scissors and a bit of careful folding. Naturally, we made up stories to go with the costume changes.
    Now I pursue more solitary pleasures with jigsaw puzzles, crosswords, computer mahjong and of course, reading—lots and lots of reading. My imagination is still engaged though!

    • I play a lot of computer solitaire, which I find almost meditative. It’s as if the game provides just enough mental engagement that my executive brain is lulled into watching the birdie, but not so much that I get all think-y and goal oriented.

  19. We were outside almost constantly, playing in the woods in back of our house, riding bikes, playing school. When the southern heat got to be too much, we had a fabulous library right around the corner!

    • That sounds ideal, especially the part about the library right around the corner. I’m struck, though, by how many of us had woods, a vacant lot, a cul de sac, some sort of open space to play in. My daughter certainly did as well, but I wonder how many kids growing up now have that kind of freedom.

  20. I was lucky to grow up in a tiny town (pop. 500) in northeastern Oregon. I was a bookworm but when I was reading I was usually outside. Whenever school wasn’t in session, my three younger brothers and I had the run of the town. Dad was minister at one of the churches, so my parents knew almost everyone, and there was nowhere that was considered dangerous. I caught minnows in the “crick,” roller-skated on the concrete foundation of a house that had been demolished many years ago, climbed the old apple trees, swung on the stuffed burlap bag that my dad hung. Across the street were apple trees to climb.

    My favorite books were horse stories. I read every horse-related book in our tiny local library, and then every four weeks we’d go to the big town of Pendleton and check out books from the county library. There was a limit on the number of books we could borrow, and I remember weighing the decision carefully. We didn’t get a TV until I was 10 years old; my parents decided we should watch the 1960 Olympics. Our TV time was strictly limited, which led to complex negotiations with my brothers over which shows we were going to watch.

    When I was 13 I finally saved enough money to get a pony. The farmer across the street had retired and his plow horses had passed on, so we had free pasture and a small barn. I couldn’t afford a saddle so I rode bareback. In the winter his furry coat helped keep me warm. My feet were the only parts that threatened to freeze. I remember on cold days, I’d put on thick socks and warm them in front of the fire, then wrap my feet in “tin foil” and put on a pair of my dad’s boots.

    Up until 2006, I was pretty active. My vacations were usually skiing, backpacking or kayaking. My dad moved in with me when he developed Alzheimer’s, and I let it flatten me. He passed away four years ago and I still struggle to find the energy and enthusiasm for play. I’m grateful to you and my friends for reminding me how important it is!

    “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
    – George Bernard Shaw

    p.s. one of the reasons I love your books so much is how you include horses (and dogs). I think my favorite is still Andrew’s Magic.

  21. Thanks for this post, Grace. I’ve been thinking about play a lot and wondering how to put more of it in my family’s life. My boys are watching more and more tv with my husband. I held the line on tv watching until they were in middle school, but I’m losing now. I did make them all come with me for a walk in a county park last weekend, though. And my boys do play capture the flag or some such with their Scout troop every week. I’m worried though that my 13 year old who used to read constantly seems to have stopped reading altogether.

    As a child we moved around a fair bit, which was great for the imagination. I remember making paper dolls out of old pattern books. And I read constantly. I still read novels whenever I can. I suppose I should read about play instead (although that sounds like a contradiction in terms). Any suggestions?