Many moons ago (almost two decades ago now), I worked as a wilderness field instructor with Project U.S.E. I was alone prepping for a course when I approached our base camp and found a small (but still rather large) bear playing on a large teeter-totter that had just been constructed for our adventure programs. We'd use it to teach groups how to work together to navigate from one side to the other while trying not to let it touch the ground. The bear was having a joyous time exploring balance on it's own. It needed no instruction, it just knew to play to explore its environment.
I recently shared this story with a client when I wanted to emphasize how natural play is.
Sadly, many of us don't know how, have forgotten how, or don't prioritize play. It's rampant in our society. My clients share with me that they are too busy to play, they lack time, energy or desire. They share too that play feels hard. That intrigues me. Play is hard?
There was recently an article that went viral about why kids can't sit still in school, it pointed to their lack of movement as the cause for the jump in ADHD diagnoses.
I'm thinking it's not just kids that are moving (and playing!) less these days.
No wonder we struggle to connect to ourselves. No wonder intimacy and relationship satisfaction dwindles, especially after babies are born into families. No wonder we get frustrated with our children, lose our cool and then wonder why they don't listen to us. We've forgotten to play!
I'm recalling an evening a few months back when my husband and I were struggling to get our daughters into their bath. They were so busy in their own worlds that they couldn't join us in ours. It was frustrating!
Our voices started to get louder until I surprised them all (and myself too) but exclaiming "OK, lets try something new. Everyone crawl on all fours to the bath!" And then we all did, just like that, we bear crawled to the bath-tub.
We are actually built for play
According to Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, play is a state of mind.
We are built for play. It helps sculpt our brain and allows us opportunity to safely try out things without threatening our well-being. Play is that space where we develop a personal understanding of how the world works. In play, we get to imagine new possibilities. We get to explore. We get to fail and succeed and figure out what works in our own way. We get to master our environment. We get to test boundaries and learn social cues.
Watch a pack of puppies play; they utilize play to establish pack roles. Watch how they test limits and how they learn limits. The testing and learning and part of play.
Play is the space we learn how to engage with others. Play is also the space we learn to engage with ourselves.
The mindset of play makes it safe for us to explore and fail. Play makes taking risks feel less threatening. Play is riddled with successes and failures. It's suppose to be. Failing means learning.
Play is how we learn and grow; long into adulthood. Mindset is key though. Play is a doing activity, not a trying activity. We don't try to play, we play.
The playful mindset invites connection
What I've seen over and over is that making small tweaks to how we initiate connections with ourselves and with others makes all the difference. Playfulness invites connection, ease and balance.
When we play we don't overthink. It's easier for us to get comfortable in otherwise uncomfortable dynamics. And that's just what I see when I coach clients through a play session in my office.
My client Jane* struggles to communicate with her partner without everything feeling heavy, without her partner shutting her down when she is finally feeling ready to be vulnerable and share her feelings.
We've played with new ways for her to lighten the opening of the discussion. Ways Jane could playfully engage him in asking questions to help her open up rather then dumping her insecurities and leaving him feeling flustered. And guess what? It works!
Jane and her husband are having more fun and communicating better, all because of a shift in her mindset which created an openness in their discussions. An openness that allowed him to react to her with ease and without defense... She shifted her mindset and created space to enjoy connecting with her partner.
Have you explored this shift of mindset in your own life? I'd love to hear what it opened up for you!
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