Finding sunshine in a cloudy life - Mental Health

Somebody come and play

It’s not just for children anymore

Once upon a time, my oldest son was around two or three and my youngest was a babe in arms. As is common when a new baby interrupts the natural order of things for the first child, Oldest was put off by not being the center of attention at all times. I was nursing Youngest (or rocking him, or possibly just taking a moment to recover a sense of equilibrium mothers of young children often lack), when Oldest asked me to play with him. I don’t remember the precise reason I couldn’t, but I just couldn’t. With his usual dramatic flair, my boy slumped his shoulders, dropped his head, and slowly (oh, so slowly) turned to trudge up the stairs. I heard his innocent voice start to sing Sesame Street’s song, Somebody Come and Play — but in a dirge-like way, with huge, heavy sighs at the end of every phrase.

Today, this is a funny story from our Parents’ Collection of Funny Stories About Their Kids (although even now, nearly 20 years after the fact, I still have massive mom-guilt* that I said no when my child wanted to play with me). It does serve to illustrate how very important play is to children.

The one thing this story is missing is an illustration of how important play is for everyone. So often, once we start adulting in earnest, we fall into the endless loop of working to afford a life we don’t really enjoy because we are too busy with our jobs. This isn’t a criticism of anyone’s choices, it is simply a statement of how things often are. The vast majority of us need to work to put food on the table, and to have a table upon which to put food.

Busy, Busy, Busy
Philadelphia Chickens by Sandra Boynton
sung by Kevin Kline

There are jobs out there that provide the very desirable combination of doing things you enjoy on a pretty regular basis and not embracing freeganism as an eating plan. Very often, however, these jobs come without a guaranteed paycheck and 401-K. It’s a great gig for an increasing number of people, but it is not right for everyone. So, if snowboarding is what you mean by play, but you live in Haines City, Florida, you might find yourself in a play-deficit.

The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression.

Brian Sutton-Smith

When we don’t participate in activities we find joyful, our only hope of joy is to stumble across it. Happy moments are everywhere, actually, just waiting to be noticed, but the less often we experience them, the less likely we are to notice the ones that are sitting quietly. Without something filling our “joy reservoir,” it can slowly seep out of us entirely, leaving little behind but routine and quiet despair. No one plans for this, but sometimes people find themselves simply going through the motions.

What then, are we to do? Gather round, my children, because the answer is right here. Introvert, extrovert, college student, or senior citizen, the answer is the same for all of us. We have to change our habits, and find ways to play. If the very idea makes your stomach hurt, take heart! Playing doesn’t have to mean waiting by the bench for someone to choose you for their sports team (Christine Lavin, I’m looking at you). It offers infinitely more options than playing bridge or Grand Theft Auto. You get to choose what and how you play! (This is very good news for me, as I am not into any of the activities I listed above.)

A little nonsense now and then, is cherished by the wisest men.


“Meow” means “woof” in cat.” 

George Carlin

As you may have noticed, one thing I do enjoy is hobby-level etymology. I love looking up exact definitions of words, synonyms, antonyms, root words, all that stuff. Language is nothing short of magical to me. It’s fair to say I’m a word-geek.

So, naturally, I went looking for a workable definition of play — and was stunningly let down by my favorite online dictionary. In fact, none of the dictionaries were giving me something usable and concise.

I found the reason my beloved dictionaries had let me down in a quote by Scott G. Eberle, Ph.D., as written in this article on “Defining play is difficult because it’s a moving target,” Eberle said. “[It’s] a process, not a thing.” He said that it begins in anticipation and hopefully ends in poise. “In between you find surprise, pleasure, understanding — as skill and empathy — and strength of mind, body, and spirit.”

This sounds like a very tall order for a person who has grown unaccustomed to play. Now it’s not just a THING, it’s an entire PROCESS. Before you throw in the towel and tell yourselves hiding under the covers is joyful enough, take a moment to think. Some of you may be playing and not even know you’re playing.

How many of you have a baby?  I’m not talking about an infant, or even a dog or a cat (or lizard, or snake, you get the idea.)  I’m talking more about things like a car you’re restoring, a cookbook you’re writing of your great-grandmother’s recipes, or even a special research paper based on an idea of your very own. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about.  You’re invested.  It hypes you up. You pour part of yourself into it every time you work on it. It’s possible that no one but you knows it’s your baby, but it’s more likely that everyone in a thirty-mile radius knows.

When you have a pet project like this, just as when you are raising a child, there are moments of immense pride, of complete frustration, and of bewilderment.  You may feel you’re completely in control of what’s going on and then suddenly it has a mind of its own. You are led places you’ve never been before on a journey you may not have expected.

This fits nicely within Dr. Eberle’s description of the process of play. Anticipation, surprise, all that jazz. Now, not everyone has or even wants a project like this and that’s totally okay, too. I mean, my great-grandmother was, according to my mom, the best dessert maker ever to walk this earth, but I neither have her recipes, nor could I eat the confectionary delights and still fit into my jeans. I do restore my car, if by “restore” you mean, “put back in the garage after driving.”

My great-grandmother didn’t make this, nor did I. The difference is, I’m sure she could have!

So, what if your idea of fun is to watch The Golden Globes, make bets with your bestie about who is going to win what, and watch in open-mouthed horror, hoping your favorite actress manages not to have a wardrobe malfunction in that dress. This activity is absolutely an occasion of play.

Hand to heart, just about anything is probably considered play by someone. Organizing things can be playing. It’s not my favorite game, but I would bet there are people who dig organizing, yet wonder why on earth I dance in my living room, blasting my music, and crooning along with Jason Mraz as we musically declare to one and all the Love Is Still The Answer.

If you’re still completely stumped, I found a great list to get you started playing, produced by Laughter Online University. I especially liked #14. “Get really excited about everything, just for fun.” I’m sitting here in my office, imagining the look on my quiet, introverted husband’s face if I got super animated this evening about how GREAT it is to SIT IN THE LIVING ROOM! It’s just so GREAT! I mean, there are WINDOWS! And look! If I don’t want to look out the windows any more, all I have to do is TURN THIS STICK and the window blinds close. It’s like MAGIC!

If you don’t find this as hilarious a concept as I do, you’re probably the introvert in this scenario. I’m guessing you won’t choose #14. If I were you, I wouldn’t either.

I assert that the most important thing is not what you are doing to add play to your life, but how and why you are doing it. Please, do something fun every day. Pay attention to how you’re feeling while you do it. Tell a friend how great it was, and maybe invite them to join you next time. I predict that when you go looking for ways to be joyful, you just might notice joy popping up where you least expect it.

Ready? Set? Go!

Brightest blessings, Sunny

*Mom-guilt happens to all moms. While I still feel its pangs over things long since said and done, if anyone else had told me this story about their child, I would be first in line to do what it takes to convince them that it’s OKAY to take a moment to yourself. If you played with your child(ren) on every single occasion they desired, literally nothing else would happen unless an outside person was involved. Also, said outside person would definitely be invited to join playtime.

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