Years ago, soon after we welcomed Oskar to our home and before he knew all of our rituals, I took Dali and Oskar to the airport to pick up my husband, Irwin. We were waiting for him in the baggage area and after I received his call, I knew to keep a look-out. When I saw Irwin, I alerted Dali and Oskar: “Who sees Daddy?” Dali looked around, spotted Irwin and started running towards him. She had a goal. Oskar ran along with Dali. He was so much in the moment, simply joyous to be running with his buddy. Oskar was in a moment of play. Running just because it was fun. He ran right past his Daddy.
Sometimes Dali and Oskar will rough and tumble play. Dali doesn’t play as much as Oskar would like and I feel bad about that, but when they do, it is so much fun to watch. It is like they are in their own world. And that is part of play, too. Play participants are in a state of abandon, a zone.
According to play expert Dr. Stuart Brown (what a fun job he has!), play is important throughout our life. There are many different types of play and the basis of human trust is established through play signals. Play helps with our emotional regulation, cognitive and physical development, innovation and creativity, and bonding and closeness. Nothing lights up the brain like play does. All species seem to be able to play and there is a very powerful and deep signaling system that exists between various species.
In his TEDTalk, Dr. Brown gives this example of a polar bear coming upon chained sled dogs. The polar bear is in a predatory approach with eyes fixed, stalking movements, and claws extended. One of the sled dogs gives a play bow and when the polar bear receives the message, everything changes. Their interaction becomes good-natured and trusting.
I’ve certainly experienced this with Oskar. Oskar can be very playful. He can make me laugh out loud. One time, I was at the foot of the stairs calling to Oskar at the top of the stairs to bring the ball-ie. He doesn’t like to bring the ball. He likes me to chase him. I don’t like to chase him. He just stood motionless and so after a couple of tries, I left my post and walked away. Moments later, I hear the ball hitting each step. I started to laugh. Oskar had pushed the ball down the stairs to lure me back, but he found a way to do so without bringing the ball to me.
Although hard to define because it is pre-verbal, play is voluntary, fun for its own sake and seems purposeless. It can be active. It can also be imaginative and inward. Some of my favorite times have been walking in the woods with Dali and Oskar. I explore places and climb in and out of small creek beds I never would if I weren’t with them. And I daydream. I hadn’t understood these times to be a form of play until listening to Dr. Brown.
It is important to bring play in to our lives. It is important for our well-being. Play deprivation results in rigidness, lack of optimism, a negative view on life and depression. It is important for each of us to be true to our own temperament to find the activities of play that fit us best. This will help us be more effective in work and different areas of our life. I recently started painting and found my anxiety decreased dramatically. I love using a lot of paint and because I enjoy the gooey feel I sometimes use my hands to cover the canvas and mix paint. Doing this brought up memories of photos I had seen of myself as a toddler playing in the mud. Perhaps a trait I was born with was to enjoy exploring through a sense of touch and physical movement.
Play is also important in our couple relationships. If we neglect the fun side of our relationship, this can trigger a spiral of distress. Each couple needs to incorporate their ways of play into their lives and so some things together just because it is fun.
The video at the top of this blog post always makes me smile. My mirror neurons probably fire watching the dog and sheep play tag. I hope they and my blog inspire you to find ways to play that fit who you are.