Play is a tool you can use to find and free yourself, see others more fully and enjoy this one precious life, especially during the most challenging of times.
Today I’m sharing some of the ways play has impacted my life with the hope you might find some inspiration for your own forms of play.
I came into the world the 5th child, 7th in my family and play, from the start, was a big part of life. Competitive Monopoly (my brother Andrew was always the banker), chess, backgammon…ping pong in the basement, basketball (5-3-1, around the world and just plain one-on-one pick-up games) in the driveway; bicycle tricks on the block; kick-the-can, whiffle ball, snowman building in the backyard… There was also quite a bit of intellectual play in my home. With three eagle scouts, two phi beta kappa and two summa cum laude in the family, you had to be nimble to make your mark.
In high school, I discovered that through play you could not only have fun, you could also help people in need.
In February, 1980, during my senior year in high school, some friends and I developed a program “Flowers for your heart” to support the American Heart Association (my father had a chronic heart murmur). We cut a deal with a local florist to buy lots of roses below wholesale, gave each color of rose a different meaning (yellow: “Smile you’ve got style”, White: “peace”, Red: “I love you”, etc.) and set up a stand in school. People could buy the roses and we would deliver them to the recipients, in the middle of the school day! On Valentine’s Day, a bunch of seniors dressed up in red leotards (as cupids) and leaped into classrooms delivering flowers. So playful and fun! Everyone was included and felt part of the community…lots of laughter and we raised $5,000 for the Heart Association!
Is there a charity whose mission is dear to your heart? Perhaps you could organize a playful remote event and raise money to help the charity grow! Charities – I like to call them Impact Organizations – need your help now more than ever.
As a grown-up, play has taken on new meaning and continues to be a vital, evolving, powerful and important part of my life.
In 1992 I started a board game company and over the next twenty years played games (literally) with people all over the world! I discovered so much more about others, dear friends and strangers, by experiencing them in playful, sometimes competitive, sometimes challenging, sometimes just completely funny situations. It’s amazing what happens when a person gets to relax, leave all worries behind and engage in play. We started receiving hundreds of letters from people around the world – sharing their own clues and answers to some of our word games. I’ll never forget the list of 112 “Links” we received from one lady. She was living in a nursing home and wrote about how revitalized she felt from playing our game, Think-it Link-it! My friend Merideth is playing Canasta with her mom and my friend Margie has become an expert bridge player and teacher – she has built an entire network of support around her with it! Do you have a favorite board or word game? Maybe now is a good time to play?
One of my favorite parts of being a parent has been all of the different ways Sophie and I have played! From those early days of endless hide and seek and our favorite board games (connect four, clue, candyland, othello, backgammon, chess, etc.) to singing in spontaneous harmony, songs we made up in the moment and concerts in the car, playing music over and over again until we knew every single word – play has been a big part of our special lifelong bond.
Play in my family has also centered on travel and the joy of discovering a new city or region. We filled endless airport time with countless games of backgammon and connect the dots and also delighted at the sight of a ping pong table, ready for a good match! For us, travel was also like theatre – all of the interesting people we met and enjoyed became like characters in our own special play. Which reminds me of how often we enjoyed watching The Sound of Music and how beautifully the von Trapp family played together!
During Sophie’s early years, whenever we visited a new city or town, it wasn’t complete without finding a good swing. The deep satisfaction we both felt as Sophie held on to the chains or (ropes) after a good push, thrust herself in the air and holding tight, smiled wide as the sky!
In 2005, when schools and lives were ravaged by Katrina, it felt important for families around the world to pause and consider the importance of playgrounds and play in their lives. At my daughter’s school, we developed a Hula-Jumps-Hoops-a-thon – families coming together to hula-hoop, skip rope and shoot hoops to raise money so that we could build a new playground for one of the schools in Mississippi. As part of the process, we asked all of the students, from grades K-12, to draw a picture of their favorite or imaginary playground. We filled the cafeteria walls with these colorful creations, set up stations for kids to create tiles of love and upstairs, in the two gyms, the music blasted as hundreds of people in our community came together to hula hoop, laugh, move, be silly, share this experience together and help others. We raised $35,000 and managed to build a playground with a mosaic of love, for a school in Mississippi.
In 2015, the last year of my mother’s life, when most people thought she was gone completely, I vividly remember one of the times I brought over Think-it Link-it and played a few rounds with her. It’s a word game where you get two words that don’t rhyme (heavy feline, for example) and try to find two synonymous words that do (ie. Fat Cat). One of the challenges of Alzheimer’s is losing one’s faculty with words, so it might seem strange for me to have engaged my mother in this way. But my mother loved to play, especially if the play involved language and her intellect. Her love of play, even in the most advanced stages of her neurological trauma, was greater than any deficiencies.
So I just gave her a bunch of simple clues and paused to give her some time. In the beginning, I gave eventually my mom the answers, but then, when I simply assumed she would join me, she surprised everyone in the room and did! We played for what felt like a lifetime, completely immersed in the activity, both of us not really thinking outside of the game at all. What was Alzheimer’s anyway? Who was this menacing guardian anyway? One amazing thing play can do is stop time, thrusting you into the present moment with all of its glory and allowing you to just be and be so purely and completely full of joy. My mother found the words and basked in the joy and then thanked me and squeezed my hand tight. Maybe you can reach someone you love through a simple word game?
In 2020, play has also been personal, helping me to find profound inner strength. During moments of uncertainty, when fear might have crushed me, I turned, unwittingly, spontaneously, to play. One night, for example, while reading a disturbing article about how COVID19 could ravage a person with blood cancer, I stepped away from my computer, turned on the music and started to dance. Then I started to sing. I opened my heart, just for me, and even laughed at the strength, hope and spirit that lies within each of us, especially in troubling times.
I encourage you, no matter what, to find time to play (it’s good for your heart, your mind and your life!)!!