Why play is not just for kids

“Sometimes I feel so boring,” said a woman I had just met on the beach. We were watching our respective young children running on the beach, screeching in excitement about the goals they scored and bouncing quickly from one game to another.

I get it: when you see a child at the peak of their exploration, it is hard not to wonder where they get their energy, curiosity and enthusiasm from.

My son, León, who is one and a half years old, spent close to an hour going from shrub to shrub of wild Lantana, grabbing the clusters of flowers, observing how they came apart very quickly in his hands and how much their colours varied.

In comparison, a lot of us adults may be able to concentrate deeply when fulfilling a task – but how often do we enjoy it as much as a child?

The mind of a child

This is partly due to our different stages in life, says developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik, whose work I deeply admire because it has had a tremendous impact on how I perceive childhood.

In a nutshell, Gopnik says that children are fulfilling their role, which is to explore. And they are able to explore freely because we adults are there to create a safe environment for them to learn by trial and error — like small scientists.

On the other hand, adults — explains Gopnik — are better at focusing on more specialised work using the brains they have developed through nurture and experimentation throughout long childhood.

Of course, this does not mean that we are less playful per se as adults, but it does mean that we take fewer risks, are less surprised by our surroundings and that we are also quite understandably concerned with real stressors.

The opposite of a medical prescription

This is true especially for parents of young children, especially in contexts that put them at a clear disadvantage. There is clear evidence that the climate emergency, as well as racism and living in poverty, are systemic stressors that put families of young children at higher risk — affecting caregivers’ and children’s mental wellbeing above all.

Yet as adults, we are increasingly aware that we should relax, be away from our screens, exercise, eat well, and, yes, play.

But play is the opposite of a medical prescription.

As we approach June 11, the first International Day of Play, it’s a great time to think about what play means for kids and adults alike.

“Play is something done for its own sake,” Dr. Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play told NPR. “It’s voluntary, it’s pleasurable, it offers a sense of engagement, it takes you out of time. And the act itself is more important than the outcome.”

Game companies are now trying to target adults as new customers — think of major players like Playmobil and LEGO, as this article explains. Sets that are “carefully curated and especially recommended for adults” on themes such as wonders of the world, the magic of film, outer space, icons of pop culture, luxury cars and architectural masterpieces.

I myself have fallen victim to Playmobil since I moved to Greece, where I found a line of theirs that focuses on the Greek Olympian Gods. In theory I have been buying and collecting them for Lorenzo, who is a big lover of Greek mythology, but in reality I do wish I had had those plastic figures myself growing up.

But I have not succumbed to collecting them myself. I gift them to Lorenzo and see how he unpacks them, sigh deeply when he loses pieces (Athena’s spear was gone very quickly!) and then calm myself by thinking that I don’t know how to play with those plastic gods the way that Lorenzo does, making up wars and journeys and punishments.

I also found this incredible series of accessories that can be printed with a 3D printer for those who want to give their Playmobil an Argentine vibe — a “che playmobil”. Think of a BBQ set or a Boca football T-shirt.

Adults with toys

Is the risk of adults using sets like Playmobil that we simply want to collect them, have the most extravagant and quirkiest accessories, and keep them pristine? Isn’t part of the exploration that we can actually mix and match them, break them apart? We risk losing what makes play fun.

An example. I recently went to a wedding where I rediscovered how much I love dancing away for hours on end. I got back home with the resolution to have more dance in my life, and then I started thinking whether I should study some kind of dance, or do a certificate, until I realised that that was exactly the opposite of what I needed. I just wanted to dance for fun, no strings attached, no certificates needed!

The mother I was talking to who felt boring was comparing her current self (stay-at-home mother) to her previous self (a successful business person). She was weighingher previous work-related adrenaline-inducing activity against her flat, monotonous rhythm dictated by another human being.

She was missing her freedom, which she associated with fun. And I get it.

Staying at home with kids is still seen as unglamorous and unexciting, though it is slowly being recognised as important and very tiring. But we shouldn’t be ashamed of a change in our status, nor should this prevent us from being fun –- not boring.

After all, as anyone who’s seen a child with a box knows, they don’t need anything fancy to play.

What I’ve been reading

I finally got around to find time for this incredible read: a 2022 Boston Globe story on Kate Price, a survivor of rape and trafficking who went on to becoming an anti-trafficking campaigner, who fought all her life to have people believe her story. Price was a patient of trauma psychiatrist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, who wrote about her experience with EMDR therapy in his best-selling 2014 book, The Body Keeps the Score. The Globe story by journalist Janelle Nanos is superbly written, with a lot of insights into why early memories are important but their content can be questioned. The story is the result of ten years of work in which Nanos followed Kate and her journey as she found out more about her past.

What I’ve been listening to

I just listened to the full first season of the Overlooked podcast, in which Canadian journalist Golda Arthur (a former colleague of mine from the BBC) narrates her journey trying to understand cervical cancer after her mother is diagnosed with it. She explains that creating the podcast helped her become “a better advocate for myself, my mother and my ovaries.” This is especially important for a cancer that nobody historically wanted to talk about and whose symptoms were often disregarded as something minor by doctors. This is highly recommended if you want to learn more about your ovaries and if you want to hear the testimony of Theresa Arthur, who is a wonderful woman.

What I’ve been watching

Hedgehog in the Fog is a 1975 Soviet short animated film that is a little eerie and very poetic. I came across it thanks to Anya, a friend and a member of The First 1,000 Days community. It tells the story of how Hedgehog sets off for his evening visit to Bear, his friend. Every evening, the two meet, sit on a log, have tea and count the stars. But this one evening, Hedgehog sees a beautiful white horse, standing in the fog and decides to walk into the fog to see where the horse goes to sleep. I found it a great allegory of curiosity, exploration, and how fears block us from doing what our instinct pushes us to do.

What’s been inspiring me

This photography series by Bulgarian photographer Valery Poshtarov depicting elderly fathers holding hands with their sons is incredibly touching. It helps to think about gender norms, and how little men show affection and use physical touch, and it also inspires us to think of fatherhood differently. My partner Nacho dedicated part of one of his newsletters to it recently — which is also worth a read.

With love and care, 

📣 The First 1,000 Days is edited by community member and friend, Shaun Lavelle.

Photo credits and alt-text: Markus Spiske on Unsplash. Several car toys placed on sheets of white paper, on which roads and landscapes are drawn with markers. Three police cars are lined up in a row on the drawn road, while other colored cars are scattered along the route. Next to the papers are markers. The background is a light-colored wooden floor.

This is not a space to simply comment. This is where you take part in the community.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *