My childhood was blessed with play – I was able to walk or bike to school with friends, and we often took a few minutes to notice squirrels in the trees or climb boulders by the road as we made our way to the neighborhood elementary school. During long summer days we played house, caught June bugs as they flew lazily around the yard, or cooled off by jumping through the sprinkler. Summer evenings were meant for chasing fireflies, playing Kick the Can with the big kids, and lying on a quilt to watch the stars. Little did I know that all this play was growing my brain, preparing me for adult life.
What did you like to play when you were a child? Did you have a favorite toy, game, playground, and play-buddy? These questions often bring a smile to people when I ask them. Looking a little further, what do you like to play now? Do you have still have a favorite game, activity, place, or person that you associate with the word “play”? Would people describe you as playful? Becoming more playful might be a worthy goal.
Research over the past few decades indicates that play activates neuroplasticity – a state in which your brain is ready and willing to change. As believers who long for transformation into all God has created for us – to walk in those “good works He prepared for us beforehand” (Eph. 2:10), engaging in play could be one gateway to transformation.
Play researcher and author Stuart Brown describes play in this way: “Play is a state of mind rather than an activity. Play is absorbing, apparently purposeless activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of self-consciousness and sense of time. It is also self-motivating and makes you want to do it again.”
One of the delightful things about play is that it is defined differently by each of us. For one person, reading about history meets the definition, while for another, it might be fishing, crafts, carpentry, hiking, crossword puzzles, or watching baseball. Whatever brings you enjoyment and causes you to become fully involved and lose sense of time – for you, that is play.
Margaret Guenther, Episcopal priest and spiritual director, said, “Play exists for its own sake. Play is for the moment; it is not hurried, even when the pace is fast and timing seems important. When we play, we also celebrate holy uselessness. Like the calf frolicking in the meadow, we need no pretense or excuses. Work is productive; play, in its disinterestedness and self-forgetting, can be fruitful.”
Play is joyful, and joy is essential to true maturity. In his beautiful book The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard stated, “God is the most joyous being in the universe.” We can sense the truth in this statement as we think about Jesus telling his disciples, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:11) Sometimes we lose touch with the fact that Jesus wanted us to be full of joy. However, the secure foundation of joy (someone’s glad to be with me) that is built during healthy play provides the platform for us to grow toward full maturity – receiving well, doing hard things, walking through difficult emotions, protecting the weaknesses of others, sacrificially caring for children, and at elder maturity, caring for and guiding our community.
Play is essential to growth, and growth is essential to Christlikeness. Play awakens areas of our brain to new possibilities – as we play, we open up to these ideas – “Perhaps I can be a mom some day, or build a boat, or cure a rare disease. Perhaps it is in me to share the love of God in a foreign land, climb a mountain, cook a gourmet meal. Perhaps there is more to me than I ever dreamed.” God says He can do more for us than we ever ask or imagine, but that doesn’t mean He has no desire for us to imagine incredible things we might do with Him!
“It is in playing, and only in playing, that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self (D.W. Winnicott, British pediatrician). Surely God desires us to know ourselves well and to see how we fit into His larger plan? Play often reveals Him to us and reveals new hopes and dreams as well.
In his book, Children, Can You Hear Me? author Brad Jersak opines that God created our imaginations as a place to meet with us and to dream big dreams. Mr. Rogers said, “When children pretend, they’re using their imaginations to move beyond the bounds of reality. A stick can be a magic wand. A sock can be a puppet. A small child can be a superhero.” Carrying this thought forward, a lifelong addict can become an example of self-control and an angry man can be transformed into a kind and loving friend – when our hearts and sanctified imaginations enter into intimate relationship with God, incredible transformations become reality.
Do you want to think more about the role of play and joy in your life? Join me Saturday night, March 14th, 6pm to 9pm Eastern for this month’s Online Practice Community Event – Joy and Play Like Little Children
Each Online Practice Community event is a 3 hour THRIVEtoday relational skills training that you can enjoy at home with family and friends – invite a group to join you for these fun, practical events that are a combination of teaching and interactive exercises. THRIVEtoday training events for only $25 per person!