Follow your bliss….

–Joseph Campbell

…sometimes pain is bliss.

–Joseph Campbell

I read Stuart Brown’s  Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul  hoping to find some good research and examples about play that I could use in lectures. I found this and so much more. It was a wonderfully written and fun read. Brown is a pyschiastrist, researcher, founder of The National Institute for Play, and producer of a documentary on play featuring Jane Goodall and Patch Adams.  Here’s a little clip from the documentary:

Stuart makes a compelling case for why goofing off is important. He defines play as purposeless, voluntary, improvisational activities that are done because of their inherent attraction (i.e., because they’re fun, not because there’s an end goal). He also describes the biological and evolutionary basis of play and discusses the many benefits of play. Play can:

  •  enhance problem-solving abilities, creativity, abstract thinking, and language skills
  • assist in the development of self-confidence and social skills such as cooperation, sharing, turn-taking, and conflict resolution
  • reduce stress
  • enhance motor skills
  • make life fun

I took lessons away from this book to apply not only in the classroom, but to my immediate life. My enjoyment of some of my usual play activities has waned in recent months. In reading this book I began to think about my own play history and what I enjoy doing and why. When I think about the salient moments of joyful play in my life, these are the memories that emerge:

Adventures with The Elitest Jerk on scorching summer days as we explored the waterfalls  and wildlife in the Amazon River (i.e., our grandparents’ pool).

Riding to the bottom of the ocean (the pool again) on a dolphin (i.e., my brother’s back).

The Angry Russian reading me stories. And then me reading me stories.

Playing school with The Elitest Jerk and graduating to different grades (i.e., placemats) set up in the grandparents’ forbidden livingroom.

Catching fireflies in mason jars to make lanters, attempting and failing at back walkovers. All this again with The Elitest Jerk. I really miss you, Jerk! We need to play together again soon. 


A wrestling match with my best friend Jenny in Little Matthew’s front yard.

Riding my bike: the burn of lungs and legs as I push uphill. The flow of freedom flying downhill.

My cousin, Amy, working magic as she transformed a frightening basement that I avoided at all costs into a secret wonderland hideout. We became everything from mail carriers to grocery store checkers to dance superstars to celebrated singers in that magical place.

Conjuring storms with my cat Unity Graveyard.

Finding the quiet attic of the church where I could watch the graceful dance of dust motes floating through the air and read uninterruped for hours at a time.

What I find striking about these memories is that there were no screens involved and no electronic devices necessary. There was very little expense involved in most of these things – we used our imaginations and whatever was laying around or in the environment. No store bought toys were necessary other than the bike. Books were available for free from the library.

The school-aged kids I work with today can tell me about the storyline from the video games, how to work an iPhone, and some can recite nearly the entire script of movies and TV shows.  Imaginative play, when it exists, is usually based on videogame and movie themes.Unfortunately most have no idea how to play jacks or marbles or how to fold a paper airplane.  Some of the college-aged students I work with don’t know how to play marbles either for that matter, so I teach em these things because I think its important to do more with your hands than push buttons.  I’m not alone in this value – as I learned from Stuart Brown’s book, the use of the hands to manipulate three-dimensional objects is an essential part of brain development.

Some of my adult play is a bit more expensive than my play as a child, but here are some of things I like:

Traveling – nearly anywhere, though I prefer places where I can spend a lot of time outside. 

Watching a knitted scarf or hat or gloves emerge from a ball of yarn.

Being a sequined, bespeckled, and glittery fish in a sea of dance with my school of bellydance fish friends. Responding to the movement of others to create a union of singular music, motion, and beauty.

Physical activity – walking outside, doing yoga, dancing, and the occasional karate kick or cartwheel, even if I do wind up hurting myself.

Reading and learning.

Writing and finding new ways to bring old ideas together.

What do you like to do for fun? How has it changed since you were a kid? Do you get enough play in your life?